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

UNC spied on faculty members’ emails after the Nikole Hannah-Jones debacle

UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Photo (cc) 2020 by Mihaly I. Lukacs.

You might have thought that the long, dispiriting saga over the University of North Carolina’s failure to bring New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones onto the faculty ended last July, when Hannah-Jones accepted a position with Howard University. You would be wrong.

To summarize a very complicated story, the UNC board of trustees stalled on a promise to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones — the producer and lead writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which re-imagines American history as the story of slavery — after alumnus Walter Hussman Jr. objected to her hiring and intervened with several trustees.

Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has pledged $25 million to the journalism school, which was named in his honor in recognition of the gift. The trustees eventually discovered their spine and approved the tenure recommendation, but by then it was too late. And as anyone familiar with academic governance can tell you, trustees are not supposed to get involved in tenure decisions. Yes, they have a vote, but it’s intended as a formality — sort of like the vice president certifying the winner of the presidential election.

Now Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch, who has broken some of the most important stories in the saga, has another blockbuster. It turns out that university administrators read j-school faculty members’ emails and searched backup systems in an attempt to learn who leaked the details of Hussman’s contract with the university to The News & Observer of Raleigh. As many as 22 faculty members may have been spied on, according to Killian, who quotes from an email by faculty member Daniel Kreiss to his colleagues:

As a reminder, all of this was ostensibly in pursuit of an inquiry into a leaked donor agreement that the University later admitted was a public record. As reporting and a letter by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has made clear, the University has never presented any evidence, nor has there ever been any evidence produced more generally, that these Hussman faculty had access to the donor agreement before the media.

The 1619 Project has been an obsession on the right since its publication in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in British America. Among other things, that obsession has driven a lot of the bad-faith attacks on critical race theory. Now it’s tearing apart a great university.

I’d say some resignations are in order.

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  1. Lex Alexander

    As a longtime UNC fan and, more recently, a UNC Hussman School alum, I cannot stress enough how badly the university has screwed the pooch on this whole issue. Pretty much every time it had a chance to do the right thing, it deliberately and with malice aforethought chose to do the wrong thing. Thanks also for singling out Joe Killian’s coverage for praise; it has been invaluable. (Joe is a friend and former colleague.)

  2. Forrest

    What am I missing? I’m under the impression that all materials and documents produced at an educational institution essentially belong to that entity and may be reviewed at anytime. I recall getting email notices to that effect while working in one of those ivy covered buildings in Cambridge. Anyone who is under the impression that their work emails are private is deluded. My assumption is that A.I. is (or soon will be) reviewing all documents stored on institutional systems and flagging anything interesting.

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