UNC journalism faculty members: Wealthy donors should not define the school’s values

By: - July 28, 2021 6:00 am

Carroll Hall UNC Hussman School of Journalism (Photo by Mihaly I. Lukacs CC BY-SA 4.0)

Carroll Hall UNC Hussman School of Journalism (Photo by Mihaly I. Lukacs CC BY-SA 4.0)

Members of the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school faculty overwhelmingly reject the notion that a mega-donor’s “core values” of journalism should be the official values of the school, according to a recent survey.

Instead, the faculty members favor independently determining the school’s values.

“The reason we had to have this survey was because our namesake donor was weaponizing his values and his newspapers’ values against a hire the faculty and the university clearly wanted to make and make with tenure,” said Daniel Kreiss, professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In the aftermath of the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill, new questions have arisen about the school’s relationship with Walter Hussman. Hussman, an Arkansas media magnate and prominent UNC-Chapel Hill alum, made a $25 million gift to the journalism school in 2019. That led to it being renamed the “UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.”

As first reported by The Assembly, Hussman privately lobbied against the school’s hiring of Hannah-Jones, a Peabody, Polk, National Magazine Award and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.

Hussman wrote emails to the school’s dean, chancellor, vice chancellor in charge of charitable giving, and at least one member of the school’s board of trustees, in addition to having phone conversations with multiple university leaders.

Policy Watch and a number of other publications have requested copies of those emails from the school under the state’s public records laws. Those requests have not yet been fulfilled. Hussman has declined to provide the communications, saying he believed they were private.

In an interview with Policy Watch, Hussman said he had concerns about Hannah-Jones’s work on The 1619 Project and an essay she had written about reparations to Black Americans for slavery. Hussman said he wasn’t sure Hannah-Jones agreed with the school’s core values.

Whose core values?

The values to which Hussman was referring are enumerated in a statement printed in every edition of the newspapers owned by Hussman’s WEHCO Media company. As part of his gift agreement with the school, those values were to be etched in granite and displayed at the school.

In a statement publicizing Hussman’s donation soon after it was made, the school said the values would be “embraced enthusiastically at Carolina and will serve as a driving statement behind the newly named University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.”

That surprised Kreiss and many other faculty members.

Professor Daniel Kreiss

“There was no process, no conversation with the faculty or staff about adopting Walter Hussman’s values as the values of the school,” Kreiss said. “That’s something that he began saying and it was performed into existence.”

Many students and faculty in the journalism school now believe Hussman inappropriately overstepped boundaries by using his power and influence as a donor and prominent alum of the school to privately exert pressure over a hiring decision.

With the majority of his $25 million pledge yet to be fulfilled, members of the journalism school faculty say they worry Hussman may continue to exert influence behind closed doors. When he used the values statement to question Hannah-Jones’s ethics and professionalism, faculty members say Hussman ignited a conversation about whether one man’s values should define the school’s approach to journalism. They are also concerned that the statement could be misused to attack journalists with differing views.

“The problem is not the statement of values itself,” said Kate Sheppard, a Teaching Associate Professor at the UNC Hussman school. “The problem is the apparent insertion of himself into the process and the suggestion he might have been using those as some sort of litmus test.”

If there is to be a statement of the school’s values it should come through a deliberative and inclusive process that includes faculty members and staff, Sheppard said. A major donor should not unilaterally determine the school’s values and then use them as justification for opposing hires.

“Independence from financial interests is or should be a core value,” Sheppard said. “So should empathy and recognition of power dynamics. So should the importance of transparency in the work that we do.”

Teaching Associate Professor Kate Sheppard

In a July 14 meeting, faculty members aired their concerns. Though not yet etched in granite, the statement was printed out and posted in the lobby of Carroll Hall, home to the journalism school. But it’s been removed from the school’s website.

That removal has angered some on the political right, including state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). Berger took to Twitter last week to share an essay criticizing the removal authored by a staffer at the conservative John Locke Foundation.

“What is the future of journalism if the school teaching future reporters objects to these concepts?” Berger, an attorney by profession, wrote. “It seems to me that with trust in media where it is, schools should be reaffirming values of impartiality and objectivity, not removing them.”

As a leader of the General Assembly’s Republican majority, Berger plays an outsized role in choosing members of the UNC Board of Governors, the governing body of the UNC System, and of individual schools’ boards of trustees.

Along with House Speaker Tim Moore, Berger has recently been vocal in his criticism of UNC-Chapel Hill’s leadership, even as the system’s Board of Governors and the school’s trustees have taken a larger hand in areas of university governance traditionally left to chancellors and faculty.

“I think this is an unfortunate politicization of higher education in North Carolina, full stop,” Kreiss said.

Faculty members respond to survey

On July 16, an email survey was sent to 117 faculty members and staff at the journalism school, including 42 full-time faculty members and 75 adjunct instructors and staff. Seventy-three people completed the survey, including 36 full-time members of the faculty and 37 adjuncts and staff.

Ninety percent of respondents agreed with an introductory statement that included three key points:

  • “No donor should be allowed to determine our school’s values, in actuality or impression, and
  • Walter E. Hussman, Jr.’s ‘Statement of Core Values’ are the words of the donor, and
  • The values of our school should be the result of an inclusive and deliberative process that represents our diversity of experience and expertise.”

Eighty-one percent agreed with a resolution that Hussman’s “Statement of Core Values” should only be displayed as per the donor agreement – that is, with attribution that makes it clear it is ‘the core values statement as published each day in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’ (quoted from the donor agreement).”

That number includes 78% of the full-time faculty members who responded and 84% of the adjuncts and staff.

Respondents also overwhelmingly supported a resolution calling for “a process of clarifying and communicating our own set of values as a school with stakeholders including faculty, staff, and students; the process and outcome will be determined inclusively, collectively and deliberatively.”

Eighty-five percent of respondents agreed with that resolution – 83% of full-time faculty members and 86% of adjuncts and staff.

It’s not yet clear how soon a new values statement, arrived at through a process that includes the faculty and staff, will emerge. But Sheppard said it’s important that the school itself decides those values.

“As a school we represent a lot of different experiences and a lot of different viewpoints,” Sheppard said.

Whatever emerges won’t be a static dictate, Sheppard said, etched in stone or otherwise. It will be a starting point for discussion.

“There should be differences of opinion, there should be debate,” Sheppard said. “There shouldn’t be a litmus test.”

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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.