By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Nikole Hannah-Jones update: It depends on what the definition of ‘pressure’ is

Walter Hussman Jr.

The latest installment in the Nikole Hannah-Jones saga is absolutely wild. Walter Hussman Jr., the University of North Carolina alumnus who endowed the journalism school to the tune of $25 million, is fighting back against reports that he exerted pressure on school officials and the board of trustees not to hire Hannah-Jones, who’s also an alum.

A quick recap: Hannah-Jones was offered the Knight Chair at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman (yes, it was named after him) School of Journalism and Media, a position that customarily comes with tenure. But after her appointment ran into trouble with the board of trustees, she was instead offered a five-year non-tenured appointment, an action that school officials can take without any involvement by the trustees. Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer Prize-winning force behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which re-centers American history around slavery.

I’m not going to try to summarize this detailed piece by Joe Killian in NC Policy Watch. But this here is an eye-opening sentence regarding Hussman’s $25 million pledge: “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.”

Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, insists he did not try to pressure anyone and that he never suggested he wouldn’t come through with the money if he didn’t get his way. And there this classic back-and-forth involving an anonymous board member and Hussman:

“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.

Hannah-Jones is considering legal action. She has set today as the deadline for the trustees to vote on her tenure case. Otherwise, her lawyers say, she’ll move ahead with a lawsuit. Let’s hope the trustees take the opportunity to put this embarrassment behind them.

Finally: Three cheers for independent media. NC Policy Watch and The Assembly have been driving this story and deserve a lot of credit.

Previous coverage.

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  1. nahantjim

    In the NC Policy Watch story this sentence jumped out at me, “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.”’

    I started to read the 1619 project in the Times but set it aside as being as tendentious, that is, as a politically and racially tinged interpretation of history. Its interpretations were presented as ideological truths rather than as a “historical point of view.”

    I respect uncertainty.

    I’m drawn to the concept advanced by Edmund Husserl called “bracketing,” that is, taking one of what you believe to be “your own” ideas and, intellectually, setting it aside, bracketing it, as a “possible truth” and trying to look at it again, outside one’s own ego, trying to arrive at, what Plato called “the most likely truth.”

    Understanding, especially of historical phenomena, is made almost impossible by the ideologist, he or she who knows the answer to the question before it’s asked.

    I found the writing in the 1619 project to be unrewarding. Does that make me a racist? What’s worse, does it put me in league with Trump and Cotton?

    • I would also suggest that there’s a difference between the techniques of, for example, literary criticism and the methods used by historians — both are dealing with texts, but the toolbox is different, it seems to me. I get the impression that types of arguments used in one context of academia are sometimes being imported into a context in which they don’t apply.

  2. Lex

    Thanks for highlighting this, Dan. Joe Killian and I worked together at the Greensboro News & Record. He’s a helluva reporter.



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