Search for new UNC journalism school dean commences in aftermath of Hannah-Jones/Hussman controversy

By: - September 30, 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.)

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

The search committee charged with finding the next dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media set out its goals and a rough timeline this week.

The search comes in the wake of this summer’s fight over the school’s failed attempt to hire Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in a tenured position, the political firestorm that ensued and questions about political and donor pressure on the leadership of both the journalism school and the university.

Dean Susan King, who strongly advocated for Hannah-Jones in the dispute, announced in August that she would step down from her position at the end of the year, after a decade leading the school. King had talked about leaving the position before the Hannah-Jones controversy and will continue at the school as a tenured faculty member after she steps down. But the shift in leadership comes at a time when students, faculty members, alumni and the university’s governing bodies are all debating the school’s direction and values.

Gary Marchionini, dean of the UNC School of Information and Library Science, is chairing the 10-member search committee, which includes Hussman faculty members and students. At Tuesday’s meeting of the committee, Marchionini described the group’s charge.

Gary Marchionini
Dean of UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS)
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“We’ve been asked to identify a leader who is going to carry out the mission of the school, as articulated in the recent strategic plan,” Marchionini said. “To ignite the public conversation in the state, the nation and the world, understand the role of communication in fostering democracy. We’re looking for someone with a strong background in journalism and media, a strong record of leadership, who reflects the diversity, innovation and creativity of our entire extended community, who values the culture of collaboration here at UNC-Chapel Hill, who will carry forward the strategic plans of the school and the campus, and who will speak truth and lead by example.”

The Walter Hussman factor

Some faculty members and students say a number of those traits – especially a concentration on diversity and innovation and a willingness to speak truth and lead by example – have put the outgoing dean at odds with the conservative-dominated UNC Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors. They also brought her into conflict with Walter Hussman, the Arkansas media magnate and UNC mega-donor whose $25 million pledge to the school in 2019 led to it being renamed for him.

Hussman objected to Hannah-Jones’s work on racial issues, especially her writing on the issue of reparations for Black Americans and her work on the 1619 Project, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize for opinion writing.

Walter Hussman Jr. (Courtesy photo)

Hussman denies lobbying against the hiring of Hannah-Jones, saying he merely shared his opinions. But emails obtained through public records request showed a prolonged and increasingly intense campaign by Hussman in which he questioned Hannah-Jones’s journalistic values and, when King disagreed, made his arguments to the university’s chancellor, members of the board of trustees and prominent alumni. Ultimately, he was unable to prevent the hire, but the tenure usually granted to Knight Chair Professors was held up in a board of trustees committee, preventing a vote by the full board. After enormous public pressure and international headlines, the full board ultimately voted to grant the tenure. By then, however, Hannah-Jones said she had seen enough red flags to make her decline the offer and instead take a position at Howard University.

“Once the news broke and I started to see the extent of the political interference, particularly the reporting on Walter Hussman, it became really clear to me that I just could not work at a school named after Walter Hussman,” Hannah-Jones told Policy Watch. “To be a person who has stood for what I stand for and have any integrity whatsoever, I just couldn’t see how I could do that.”

Concern over Hussman’s continued influence at the school, and whether he may influence the selection of the school’s next dean, continue among faculty members. After Hussman’s role in the Hannah-Jones controversy was made clearer, the substance of his donor agreement with the university was leaked to the media. The school responded by launching an investigation in which faculty members who had been publicly critical of Hussman were questioned and their emails read without their knowledge. The school has yet to establish how the document was leaked or make a connection between those faculty members and the document, which was kept on a school server to which many people across the university could have had access.

In that environment, several faculty members asked Policy Watch not to identify them so that they could share their thoughts on the dean search and concerns over Hussman’s influence. The faculty members, some of whom are not tenured, said they now believe speaking out on the issue could harm their careers or lead to retribution from the university.

“I think Hussman’s role in this is worth questioning,” one faculty member told Policy Watch this week. “The faculty, students, professional associations, journalism organizations have all said that what happened with Hannah-Jones and his part in that was improper. But the university itself has never said that. The board of trustees and the UNC Board of Governors haven’t said that. So there’s no reason to think that he won’t take it upon himself to be as involved as he can in deciding who gets this job.”

Another faculty member told Policy Watch they have great faith in the search committee. But ultimately, they said, the committee can only make recommendations. The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, which is composed entirely of political appointees with the exception of its student representative, will make the ultimate call on who is hired.

“What if the finalist is not to Walter Hussman’s liking?” the faculty member said. “They’re going to have to go through many of the same processes that Nikole Hannah-Jones did. And a number of questions about his role and his influence, and how the board makes these decisions, are still unresolved.”

Political wheels already rolling

A member of the university’s board of trustees, who also asked not to be identified so that they can discuss a personnel matter that will later come before the board, confirmed that discussions among board members over the hire are already taking place. Some members fear another political standoff if influential alumni, vocal members of the board, members of the UNC Board of Governors and leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly who appoint them disagree with the finalists.

“We’ve seen for years now that decisions at this level can be and often are political,” the board member said. “We’ve just had an enormous amount of bad publicity over the Nikole Hannah-Jones hire and there are a lot of eyes on this decision. To think that politics is not going to come into it in some way would be naive.”

“There is a still lot of anger still over how the whole thing happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones,” the member told Policy Watch this week. “There are members of the board who feel that the chancellor and the dean shouldn’t have been advocating for her hiring and that they should not have publicly sided with the faculty against the board. They want someone who is going to play ball more with the members of the board of trustees and the board of governors. They want someone who is going to respect their power, not speak truth to it in a difficult situation.”

Tori Ekstrand

Tori Ekstrand, an associate professor at the Hussman school, said the search for a new leader of the school is an opportunity to have a difficult but necessary conversation about some of these issues.

“I think we’re looking for someone who is up to the challenge, for sure,” Ekstrand said of finding a new dean. “Someone who is going to address some of the issues we’ve faced over the last year or so. For me, it’s about the education piece. We talk about these terms – academic freedom and shared governance. I’m not sure all faculty understand them, not all administration understand them and certainly not all donors understand them and what the boundaries are.”

Being clear on the ground rules is important and agreeing on the school’s values and how it pursues them and what the proper roles are for various stakeholders, she added.

“Whether we can become clear on the ground rules, given the very politically charged environment we live in, is another matter,” Ekstrand said. “But with a new dean, I would like to see those kinds of political conversations advanced.”

The school has had its share of controversy in the last year, Ekstrand said. But the quality of the faculty members and students and the work being done there should still make it a very attractive prospect for applicants, she said.

Marchionini said during this week’s search committee meeting that announcements and ads for the position will begin next week. The committee hopes to begin reviewing applications on November 17. They hope to have preliminary interviews, probably through Zoom, starting late in November through the beginning of December. If all goes well, he said, they’ll begin inviting finalists for two day visits January 10-21.

“That’s the very coarse timeline,” Marchionini said. “It’s very aggressive. We’d like to move this forward. We know journalists are great communicators, so we hope the word will get out quickly.”

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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.