UNC mega-donor Walter Hussman denies exerting pressure over Hannah-Jones hiring

By: - June 3, 2021 6:00 am
UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Building

UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media (Photo by Mihaly Istvan Lukacs/Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Carroll Hall UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media (Photo by Mihaly Istvan Lukacs/Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Board of Trustees face Friday deadline to avoid legal action

As the deadline approaches for UNC-Chapel Hill to avoid a federal discrimination lawsuit over its handling of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure application, new details continue to emerge about the behind-the-scenes lobbying that led the university to a crisis point.

In a Wednesday interview with Policy Watch, UNC-Chapel Hill mega-donor Walter Hussman, Jr. detailed his opposition to the hiring of Hannah-Jones, first reported by digital magazine The Assembly on Sunday.

In 2019, Hussman’s $25 million pledge to the university’s journalism school led to it being renamed the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Most of that money hasn’t yet been delivered, leading some to speculate Hussman felt he had leverage with which to pressure the school to abandon its plan to hire Hannah-Jones.

“Here’s actually the true facts of it,” Hussman told Policy Watch. “I never pressured anybody. I didn’t pressure [UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Dean] Susan King. I didn’t pressure the chancellor. I didn’t pressure [Vice Chancellor for University Development] David Routh or anybody on the board.”

Walter Hussman Jr. (Courtesy photo)

Hussman, however, acknowledged sending as many as five emails expressing his concerns about the hire to King, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Routh, who is also chief executive of the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation, the nonprofit that receives gifts on behalf of the school. Hussman also said he sent the emails to at least one member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, who he did not name.

Policy Watch has requested the emails from the university but has not yet received them. Hussman described their contents to Policy Watch, but did not provide them. He said he assumes they will become public at some point.

Hussman said he considered sending the emails to all members of the school’s board of trustees, but ultimately decided against it. “I don’t think that’s my role, that that’s really proper for me,” Hussman said. “If I did that it looks like I’m lobbying the board of trustees. And that’s not what I should be doing. I felt like I’ve expressed my concerns and the university can accept or reject or whatever they want to do with those concerns. But once I’ve expressed my concerns I feel like this is really my whole role in this.”

In the emails, Hussman expressed concern over the accuracy of Hannah-Jones’s work for the New York Times as part of “The 1619 Project.”  Hussman said he was also concerned about criticism of her work by some prominent historians, as well as her writing on the issue of reparations to Black Americans for slavery. He said he was concerned about how Hannah-Jones’s work could clash with his vision for the school and what it teaches. Hussman said he was also concerned the controversy over her work might overshadow the school.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

There was no ultimatum or suggestion that his $25 million pledge to the school would be in danger if Hannah-Jones was hired, Hussman said.

“I haven’t said to Susan King, ‘Do not hire Nikole Hannah-Jones,’” Hussman said. “I never said that. I never said, ‘If you hire Nikole Hannah-Jones it could affect our commitment to the university or our donation.’ I never said that. I basically said, ‘Look, here are my concerns. Once I express them, they’re totally up to you.’”

But Hussman’s rationalizations of his behavior raise more questions than they answer, said a member of the school’s board of trustees this week.

“The first thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘why is Walter Hussman so informed about the hiring decisions at this school?’” said the board member, who asked not to be identified so that they could discuss a confidential personnel matter.

“He’s not a member of the board of trustees,” the board member said. “He doesn’t sit on the UNC Board of Governors. He’s not a member of the faculty or the tenure committee. He’s a wealthy alum and big-dollar donor. But as early as last summer, in September before this even comes to the board, he’s emailing the top administrators at the school and he’s contacting former and current board members about things so confidential we’re told we can’t discuss them publicly.”

“Inferred but not implied”

Hussman told Policy Watch he was aware Hannah-Jones would be hired to hold the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism only because King called him “as a courtesy” to let him know.

Hussman said he believes King might have made that call because he’s from Arkansas; U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, has publicly denounced “The 1619 Project and sponsored a bill to prevent it from being taught in classrooms.

“Maybe if I hadn’t been from Arkansas she wouldn’t have called me,” Hussman said.

That led to him to doing more research on Hannah-Jones and her work, he said, and ultimately an agreement to “agree to disagree” on the hire with King, who, he said, felt it was still the right decision.

King declined to comment to Policy Watch this week.

Hussman wasn’t content to stop there. He decided to detail his various problems with Hannah-Jones’s work in a series of emails that went beyond King.

The people Hussman contacted are important, the UNC trustee said.

“If he’s privy to who is getting hired and who isn’t and he feels like he has to reach out and weigh in and make himself part of that process, and he wants to reach out to Dean King, that’s strange enough by itself,” the board member said. “But he contacted the chancellor. He contacted David Routh, whose job is to deal with financial gifts to the university. For him to now say that the money he pledged to the school isn’t in any danger over this is a little disingenuous, I think.”

“He’s completely outside this process and he’s contacting the people who are involved with financial giving over his concerns about university hires,” the board member said. “That’s throwing your weight around because you know you can exercise your influence, based on your gifts to the school. It is a threat. I don’t see how you can see that any other way.”

Hussman denies that. “That could have been inferred, but it was never implied,” he said.

Hussman said that someone at UNC asked him directly if the hiring of Hannah-Jones would affect his donation.

“And I said the answer to that is ‘no,’” Hussman said. “One word: N-O. No. I couldn’t have been more clear about that.”

Private conversations?

Hussman wouldn’t discuss whether the school should have hired Hannah-Jones or whether the trustees should now approve her for tenure, as it has for every comparable Knight Chair professor upon their hire since 1980.

Hussman said the code of ethics for his company (WEHCO, Media, Inc.) prohibits working journalists from publicly taking sides on contentious issues, and he interprets that as applying to the publisher as well.

“That is a really interesting way to put that,” said a different member of the board of trustees, who also asked not to be identified in order to discuss personnel matters. “He believes his journalistic ethics should mean he doesn’t talk about this issue publicly. But his ethics aren’t in danger if he reaches out behind the scenes and tries to exert influence, as long as the public doesn’t see any of this and he believes he’s having private conversations. That is a really interesting set of ethics is all I’ll say.”

Hussman said he doesn’t see the two positions as contradictory.

Journalists who work for him aren’t allowed to make political contributions, Hussman said. They aren’t allowed to put bumper stickers on their cars or signs in their yards that would put them on one side of any political or public controversy. He avoids those things himself. But that doesn’t extend to private conversations, he said.

“We tell our reporters you cannot do those things publicly,” Hussman said. “We don’t tell them you can’t tell your husband or your wife, your best friend or a close confidant, ‘I voted for Biden’ or ‘I’m against this sales tax’ or ‘I’m for the for legalizing marijuana.’ I think that’s beyond the pale to say you can’t have those conversations in confidence. And that’s what I was doing.”

But trustees critical of Hussman’s role said that doesn’t make sense.

“If you think you can say whatever you want to whoever you want as long as people don’t find out about it, you shouldn’t be lecturing people about ethics and integrity,” one trustee told Policy Watch. “I can’t say the things I’d like to publicly about this, because I’m told it would jeopardize a personnel process, maybe even lead to a lawsuit. But a rich donor can find out this information, make arguments to people at the highest level about the fitness of people we employ, call other donors and talk about it…and as long as he doesn’t do it publicly, he thinks that’s okay.”

Journalism Professor Deb Aikat

Deb Aikat, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said a donor and prominent alum like Hussman must realize that his opinions carry enormous weight. Therefore, wading into hiring decisions before they even reach the board of trustees is fraught.

“We strongly believe that UNC’s benefactors should not influence hiring faculty,” Aikat said. “Such influence, implicit or otherwise, would imperil faculty governance and is a clear threat to academic freedom.”

“We are deeply disturbed over interventions, political or otherwise, to our work,” Aikat said. “Donors and trustees should respect academic freedom. Their overreach reflects a pernicious portent. Let us respect UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic autonomy as a leading global public university.”

Ethics or ideology?

Hussman has characterized his opposition to the university’s hiring of Hannah-Jones as a matter of journalistic values and ethics.

But in a September email to Routh that was copied to King and Guskiewicz, Hussman wrote politically and racially tinged criticisms of Hannah-Jones’s essay on the post-World War II fight for civil rights as part of “The 1619 Project.”

“For the most part, black Americans fought back alone,” Hannah-Jones wrote in the passage singled out by Hussman.

“I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War,” Hussman wrote in an email to King and Guskiewicz. “Long before Nikole Hannah-Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too,” he wrote.

That criticism, as reported by The Assembly, led Hannah-Jones to make a rare public comment in the middle of the tenure controversy.

“[C]ompletely irrelevant to my credentials as a journalist, for the record, I’ve long credited Black and white race beat reporters with inspiring my own journalism,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a Twitter post on Sunday. “This has been on the bio page of my web site for years.”

“Her heroes are the race beat reporters, such as Ida B. Wells, Ethel Payne, Simeon Booker and Claude Sitton,” that portion of Hannah-Jones’s bio reads. “Whose fearless coverage helped move this nation closer to its promise.”

A number of prominent journalism figures also found that particular criticism ironic coming from Hussman, who they characterized as a conservative force in the news business and whose history in journalism is deeply ideological.

Hussman is the millionaire publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His family’s company bought the Arkansas Democrat in the 1970s, installing him as publisher at age 27.

Hussman instigated and ultimately won a newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette, a crusading progressive newspaper that was a rare anti-segregation voice among mainstream Southern newspapers in the American South during the Civil Rights Era. Hussman positioned his paper as a conservative alternative to the Gazette.

“Yeah, the Democrat became a more conservative paper under our ownership,” Hussman told Policy Watch. But the paper ran both liberal and conservative columnists, Hussman said, and still writes its own editorials seven days a week.

“Our editorial process is more free market, free trade, limited government,” Hussman said. “That may not have been considered conservative at one time, but today it is.”

Hussman’s family business lost money in the newspaper war with The Arkansas Gazette for years, but it could afford it. The Gazette, diminished over the course of a long and bruising competition, was eventually bought by the Gannett newspaper chain, which badly mismanaged it. Ultimately Hussman’s company bought the Gazette and merged it with his own paper to create the Democrat-Gazette in 1991.

Douglas A. Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who once worked for Hussman at the

Douglas A. Blackmon

Democrat-Gazette, took to Twitter over the weekend to call characterizing Hussman as an advocate for balanced or non-political news “preposterous.”

“He’s been a mini-Rupert Murdoch for 40 yrs,” Blackmon wrote.

“I didn’t know him personally, but I worked for Hussman almost 35 years ago at the Arkansas Democrat,” Blackmon wrote. “He was burning millions from his family’s cable-company fortune to destroy the Arkansas Gazette — one of the greatest southern newspapers & the few that supported Civil Rights.”

“Hussman’s family bought the dying Arkansas Democrat in the ’70s & installed him as boy-publisher, still in his 20s,” Blackmon wrote. “He hired extremist conservative editors who made war on the truth, and in the 80s begin spinning bogus ‘Whitewater’ conspiracy tales about Bill & Hillary Clinton.”

“Hussman dressed up his attack on @nhannahjones with talk about accuracy and fairness,” Blackmon wrote. “But he leaves out his newspaper’s early support for #Trump, and a four-decade track record of financing ultra partisanship in journalism.”

In 2016 the Democrat-Gazette did not make an official endorsement for president. In 2020, the paper wrote a glowing assessment of then-President Donald Trump’s job performance. That same article included harsh criticisms of then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Controversially, the paper insisted this wasn’t an official endorsement of Trump for president.

“I’m sure it was nice for @UNCHussman journalism school to get $25m from him,” Blackmon wrote. “But Walter Hussman is a founding father of the fake news/Trump-lies era. Hardly anyone could have less credibility to attack Nicole Hannah Jones. Shame on the @UNC board for bowing to his will.”

Hussman said he doesn’t remember Blackmon and expressed surprise he’d won a Pulitzer.

“In life you get a lot of critics and a lot of the criticism isn’t valid,” Hussman said. “But he’s entitled to his opinion.”

A member of the board of trustees said the group’s more conservative members are happy to have Hussman’s emails as part of the public discussion.

“They think it gives them political cover,” the trustee said. “They think that Hussman’s name being attached to this criticism makes it less political. It’s not just conservative activists criticizing it. Here is this big name in journalism. But it’s a big conservative name in journalism. It’s coming from the same place.”

People may paint him as ideological, Hussman said, but he claimed his reaching out to UNC leaders over Hannah-Jones isn’t about issues like reparations for slavery or controversies over how American history should be taught. He takes no public position on those issues himself, he told Policy Watch. But the fact that Hannah-Jones has so clearly and publicly staked herself on them and a host of other contentious social issues is precisely what leads to questions about her objectivity as a journalist, he said.

Adherence to objectivity is a core value in journalism, Hussman said, as laid out in a statement of values he runs every day in his newspapers and which now hangs in the journalism school, which has pledged to carve them in granite.

“I’m anxious to find out what Nikole Hannah- Jones thinks about it and if she’s opposed to the core values,” Hussman said. “She may not be, you know. If she’s in favor of them, maybe we could work together. But if she’s opposed to them, I’m going to wonder why did she want to go to work at a journalism school where she’s opposed to the core values of the school.”

Hannah-Jones declined to comment for this story. She has made few public statements throughout the current controversy. But she has, throughout her career, emphasized the importance of the pursuit of truth in journalism and the danger of a “strictly objective, present both sides” approach which she said tends to favor existing power structures at the expense of marginalized people.

Associate Professor Ryan Thornburg

A healthy tension?

Ryan Thornburg, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the tension between Hussman’s professed principles and Hannah-Jones’s views on journalism is a healthy one — and a teachable conflict in a journalism school.

Walter Hussman and Nikole Hannah-Jones are both products of UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school, Thornburg said. They’re both in journalism. But their paths and life experiences are very different.

Hussman is a 74-year-old white man whose family has for generations owned and operated newspapers, magazines and television stations in the South. Hannah-Jones is a 45-year old Black woman who worked her way from smaller daily newspapers to the New York Times, winning every major award in journalism across a two-decade writing career in which her work has examined the fraught issue of race in America.

It would be surprising if they agreed on everything, Thornburg said.

“I think this is a good opportunity for students to see that things aren’t always the way they appear to be at first blush,” Thornburg told Policy Watch this week. “That’s why it’s really important to question things and think critically and not just take as gospel truth words put up written in stone somewhere.”

“They can be valuable as guiding points,” Thornburg said. “But when ideals meet the real world, the way the real world works, that’s when you really learn a lot of this stuff is not abstract. It is real and it has real impact on peoples’ lives and what they know about the world.”

Conversations about journalistic principles are always ongoing, Thornburg said. But there isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a litmus test for professors.

“I think that we’re going to teach what we’re going to teach,” Thornburg said. “You can put what you want up on the wall and it’s food for thought. But they’re Walter Hussman’s principles. They’re not the University of North Carolina’s principles.”

“I think this is a big enough place for all of this to exist,” Thornburg said. “That’s what helps our students learn, that they run into a lot of different faculty who feel like they’ve got the freedom, thankfully, to teach things the way that they want. I think that any of us bristle at the idea that ‘You’ve got to teach it the Nikole Hannah-Jones way or ‘You’ve got to teach it the Walter Hussman way.’”

This week, as the board of trustees faces the possibility of a lawsuit over its inaction on Hannah-Jones’s tenure, Thornburg said it’s time to consider her on her merits.

“My hope for the board of trustees is what it’s always been, that they’ll give Nikole Hannah-Jones the courtesy of voting on her tenure,” Thornburg said. “I personally believe that by any objective measure she’s well-qualified. Once the board of trustees members look at her qualifications seriously and give her the courtesy and respect she deserves by giving her a vote, they’ll come to the same conclusion.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.