The Pulse

UNC leaders address investigation into faculty over donor agreement

By: - April 8, 2022 6:07 pm

On Friday UNC-Chapel Hill’s top leaders publicly addressed the controversy over an investigation into the school’s own faculty over a leaked donor agreement.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens answered questions about the matter at a Friday afternoon faculty council meeting, calling it “an inquiry” rather than “an investigation.”

“I want to be clear that there was no investigation,” Guskiewicz said. “This was an inquiry. This was conducted, as I have learned about it over the last few days…first there is an inquiry, and if something is revealed there, an investigation might begin.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said Friday no investigation into faculty was launched, instead calling the probe an “inquiry” into data security.

Guskiewicz said an inquiry into “data security” was conducted to find out how the school’s donor agreement with Arkansas media magnate Walter Hussman was accessed on the school’s Database for Advancing our Vision of Institutional Excellence (DAVIE). The goal, Guskiewicz said, was to determine how the document made its way from server, Guskiewicz said, to the public. The document was leaked widely last summer and was ultimately published by the News & Observer on July 14.

In a statement two days later, vice chancellor David Routh said the leak was “seriously troubling and will be investigated.”

The university argues any leaked donor agreement endangers the confidentiality of all such contracts, which could in turn have a chilling effect on donations.

The inquiry is now closed and no investigation was launched, Guskiewicz said Friday.

“This was part of protection against data breaches and a data breach occurred, or it was believed it had occurred at that point,” Guskiewiez said.

As Policy Watch reported this week, newly released documents show the probe went beyond reading faculty members’ emails to accessing backup systems on their computers. It may have included as many as 22 separate faculty members. An undisclosed number of faculty members were asked to sit for questions from university attorneys. Those confirmed by Policy Watch were all from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, which was renamed for Hussman after his $25 million pledge to the school.

Though they would not have had access to the DAVIE server, the faculty members had been vocal in their criticism of Hussman himself, which they speculated led to the investigation centering on them.

Hussman was at the center of the controversy over a tenure vote in the university’s failed attempt to hire Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. When it was revealed Hussman lobbied against Hannah-Jones’s hire behind the scenes and had confidential details of the hiring process students, faculty and alumni began asking larger questions about his relationship with the university.

Whether it is called an investigation or an inquiry, faculty members said in Friday’s meeting, accessing emails and hard-drive information without their consent and calling them in for questioning was demoralizing.

“I understand there’s a distinction between an inquiry and an investigation,” said Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty. “But I don’t know that there is a distinction in how that feels to the faculty member when they are asked to come in and undergo questioning. The intent may be different but the impact may be the same, to make someone feel they are under investigation no matter how it’s parsed in other ways. Which is an important consideration going forward.”

Eric Muller, another member of the faculty executive committee, agreed.

“These kinds of inquiries, even if legally justified or justified under regulations of the university, can have a chilling effect on speech,” Muller said.

They can also have a depressing effect on faculty morale, Muller said.

Muller’s fellow UNC Law school faculty professor Mary-Rose Papandrea gave a comprehensive presentation to faculty on whether reading faculty email and accessing hard drives in this sort of investigation is legal and in accordance with university policy. While the university appears to have the authority to do so, she said, it is worth considering its impact on faculty.

“We all have authority to do lots of things in our lives,” Muller said. “That doesn’t mean that we do them, because we’re afraid it might have adverse impacts. When my daughters were in high school I had the authority to go into their rooms at any time and search around. But I didn’t do it, because I was concerned about my relationship with my daughters. I think that analogy is relevant here.”

Clemens, new to the provost’s role, was not in that office during the investigation. Documents released last week show previous provost, Bob Blouin, repeatedly authorized the expanding of the investigation after it was first launched.

Clemens said that as provost he will undertake any future use of the authority to read faculty email or access computer data with great caution, both because he is sensitive to its impact on faculty morale and because he finds the policy authorizing it to be vague in places and difficult to fully understand.

“I believe in you and I trust you and I want you to ask tough questions,” Clemens told faculty members.

Ryan Thornburg, the journalism professor who was part of a coalition seeking public documents on the investigation, said faculty are also still disturbed by how much is unknown about the investigation. After waiting seven months for the university to produce public records related the investigation, faculty and journalists found the names of those investigated and the justification for searching their computers and email redacted.

“I would like to understand the rationale for this particular inquiry,” Thornburg said.

He isn’t alone. Faculty at the university’s journalism school have been asking for a justification since the investigation began.

On August 3 Katie Nolan, chief of staff and executive director of strategy, policy, and special projects, wrote to Susan King, who was then dean of the journalism school, to ask her to sit for questioning in the investigation.

In emails obtained by Policy Watch, King expressed her reservations about participating in the investigation and her concern that it was centering on faculty in the journalism school who would have had no access to the agreement.

“As a signatory of the document, I can understand that I might have some perspective,” King wrote to Nolan on August 5.“ Before we set a date to meet, I would like you to send me a description in writing about the purpose of the inquiry and outline the questions you would like me to answer so that I can confer with my attorney.”

Like many faculty, King asked why the investigation would center on journalism school faculty who couldn’t have accessed the DAVIE server.

“As the dean of the school, I am concerned to learn that a number of my faculty members, who would have had no access to the document, were also asked to answer questions,” King wrote.

 “Once I have those questions in writing we can set up a time to meet,” King wrote.

Nolan replied the next day.

“In regards to the purpose of the inquiry, University leadership has asked me to gather some information about how the gift agreement was disclosed,” Nolan wrote. “I will share what was relayed to me in my directives: By its terms, the gift agreement is a confidential document and the University has a responsibility to assess its procedures for maintaining confidentiality and security of donor agreements, which necessarily involves talking with individuals who may have relevant information to share.”

“I have been asked to gather information to help in that assessment and to help determine whether different protocols are needed to maintain the security of confidential documents,” Nolan wrote. “My questions are limited to questions about access, possession, and disclosure of the donor gift agreement.”

It is not clear from the emails whether King ultimately sat for the questions. She did share their email exchange with faculty at the journalism school.

Policy Watch reached out to King Friday to ask more about the investigation and her views on it. She could not speak by publication time.

On Friday, King was inducted into the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame.

She joins Walter Hussman, who was inducted in 2014. Nikole Hannah-Jones was inducted last year.

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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.