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.
Walter Hussman Jr.’s campaign against New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones ended up working after all. Days after the University of North Carolina trustees finally stood up to Hussman and voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, the Pulitzer Prize winner has announced that she’s accepting a tenured position at Howard University instead.
In an interview with NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones said that even though large swaths of the UNC community were in her corner, she ultimately decided not to accept the offer because of a lack of courage on the part of the top leadership.
“The faculty, the student body, alums — were trying to do right by me,” Hannah-Jones told Joe Killian. “I know the university is caught up in a political system that it doesn’t desire.” But, she added, “Had there been some political courage on behalf of the leadership of the university, that also could have made my decision different.”
Hannah-Jones is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. According to an announcement by the MacArthur Foundation, Hannah-Jones and another highly regarded Black journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, will join the Howard faculty — Hannah-Jones as a tenured professor at the Cathy Hughes School of Community, where she will fill the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, Coates as a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Hannah-Jones will also found the Center for Journalism and Democracy.
Hussman, a major UNC donor and the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, objected to the Times’ 1619 Project, which Hannah-Jones conceived of and wrote the lead essay for. The collection of essays, a reimagining of American history with slavery at its center, has been targeted by right-wing critics and led to Donald Trump’s formation of the widely mocked 1776 Commission, dismantled by Joe Biden as soon as he became president.
Hannah-Jones and Coates are among our finest journalists, and their work has been crucial to understanding issues such as the lasting legacy of slavery, reparations and the effect of redlining on the wealth disparities between Black and white households.
The pressures exerted by Hussman, as well as the cowardice shown by the UNC trustees and administration, show why we still need institutions like Howard, the best known and most respected HBCU in the country.
Now that the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina has finally voted to grant tenure to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, I want to close this story out with a few parting thoughts, mainly about the role of trustees and donors.
When it comes to tenure decisions, trustees have what you might call a “ministerial” role. That’s a word that was used quite a bit around the time that Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump was being certified by Congress. Members of the House and Senate had to vote before the election could become official, but by custom and practice they were bound to vote for the candidate who had won the Electoral College. Their role, in other words, was “ministerial,” not deliberative or substantive. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t deviate, and, as we know, some of them did. But that was seen as a norm-breaking abrogation of past practice, notwithstanding a few protest votes that had been cast in previous elections.
So, too, is it with trustees and tenure. By the time a tenure case comes before the trustees, it’s been approved by the faculty member’s department, college (in the case of a university), provost and the president. The trustees’ role is to ratify, not to debate. As with Congress and the presidential election, that doesn’t mean the trustees can’t vote to reject someone for tenure. But to do so would amount to a complete breakdown of custom and a severe misunderstanding on the part of the trustees as to what their role really is.
Hannah-Jones’ tenure case was approved on a 9-4 vote, meaning that four trustees just don’t get it. They are not there to express their personal views. They’re there to support the administration and then go out to dinner. I don’t mean to suggest that they should play no role in the governance of the university. If there were, say, misconduct on the part of the president, then it’s the trustees’ job to discipline or fire that person. What they’re not supposed to do is reach down past the president and overturn a tenure decision.
That said, the real travesty at UNC is that the trustees allowed a major donor to influence them. Walter Hussman Jr., who showered so much money upon the journalism school that they named it after him, contacted some of the trustees and made his feelings known about the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporting about slavery and American history that Hannah-Jones conceived of and was the lead writer for. Although Hussman, who owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has said it wasn’t his intention to pressure the trustees and that he never threatened to withhold his donation, there seems to be little doubt — according to reporting by NC Policy Watch — that at least some of the trustees were worried Hussman would close his checkbook and walk away.
And not to go bothsides here, because there’s really no comparison. But the Times reports today that the trustees also heard from another major donor, this one on Hannah-Jones’ behalf:
As the debate went on, Ms. Hannah-Jones received the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university. The foundation’s chief executive, Richard E. Besser, sent a letter to the board chairman, Richard Stevens, on June 3, encouraging the trustees to “support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”
That, too, was improper, although I suppose Besser concluded that he needed to fight fire with fire.
The merits of Hannah-Jones’ tenure case were indisputable. Her appointment was to a Knight Chair, a position that always comes with tenure. She is the recipient not only of a Pulitzer but of a MacArthur Genius Grant. Opposition to her was grounded in right-wing criticism of the 1619 Project, which seeks to recenter the American story around slavery. The quibbles about it are minor when compared to its epic sweep.
We should all be glad that this has finally been resolved. But it’s enraging that it was so difficult.
Update: There’s a protest today, called by the University’s Black Student Movement. The dean of the journalism school has endorsed it.
On Friday at noon, I hope you will join the @unc_bsm solidarity demonstration in support of @nhannahjones. It’s heartening to see so many of our campus and community friends supporting @UNCHUSSMAN faculty & staff and taking action. Thank you for making your voices heard.
Earlier: The fallout from the University of North Carolina’s refusal to grant tenure to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones continues to spread. The latest development, reported by NC Policy Watch: Hannah-Jones has informed UNC that she will not accept its offer of a five-year contract, and will join the faculty only if she is granted tenure.
The UNC board of trustees has refused to act on her tenure case. A major donor to the journalism school, Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, pressured the board because of his objections to the Times’ 1619 Project, a retelling of American history helmed by Hannah-Jones with slavery as its central theme. NC Policy Watch has also reported that the university’s treatment of Hannah-Jones, who is Black, is among several factors in what threatens to become a mass exodus of people of color:
Jon Allsop has a comprehensive round-up of developments in his Columbia Journalism Review newsletter this morning. Among them is an important opinion piece in The Washington Post about the role of the southern white press in re-establishing white supremacy after Reconstruction. Sid Bedingfield of the University of Minnesota writes:
This history highlights why African American journalists have been compelled to advocate for Black equality. They have often carried out their campaigns in the shadow of a much larger White press that was fighting for just the opposite. And as Hannah-Jones has shown in her reporting, the success of those White journalists decades ago has ramifications today, as the legacy of Jim Crow continues to shape fundamental inequalities in American society.
What a disaster. The worst part of this — other than the obvious racism — is that the trustees and other university officials lack the fortitude to stand up to a major donor. Given how damaging this has been, you would have thought that trustees would have done the right thing long before now.
More fallout from the fiasco at the University of North Carolina over New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case as The Washington Post reports on the challenges facing Black women in academia. Nick Anderson and Joe Heim write:
In Chapel Hill and beyond, many academics are backing Hannah-Jones in what has become a remarkable tenure showdown pending before the university’s board of trustees. The case has raised questions about the influence of politicians and donors on the faculty hiring process.
For Black female professors, long underrepresented among America’s tenured faculty, the stakes are deeply personal.
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.
There’s been an important new development in the Nikole Hannah-Jones story. According to the veteran journalist John Drescher, writing for a North Carolina website called The Assembly, a “mega-donor” to the University of North Carolina opposed hiring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who conceived of the 1619 Project and who’s been denied tenure by the UNC board of trustees.
The donor is Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose $25 million gift to the UNC journalism program in 2019 resulted its being named the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Drescher reported that Hussman is so enamored of old-fashioned both-sides objectivity that he “relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.” Among other things, Hussman wrote:
My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University. Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.
Hussman is no fan of the 1619 Project either, although he appears to be aligned more with historians who’ve criticized it than he is with those on the right who’ve attacked it.
Now, there are several curious aspects to Hussman’s opposition. First of all, Hannah-Jones is an opinion journalist who works for the Times’ opinion section. Her journalism is rigorously fact-based, informed by a strong point of view. Does Hussman really oppose such journalism? After all, the Democrat-Gazette has an opinion section. (All four of the ADG’s opinion journalists who warrant a headshot are white men, by the way.)
The other curious aspect is that Hussman doesn’t actually understand what objectivity is. The Assembly quotes from an op-ed that Hussman wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2019:
Two years ago I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn’t believe in the “false equivalency” of presenting both sides, and that she sees her job as determining the truth, then sharing it with her audience. I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements.
The problem is that objective reporting, as conceived by Walter Lippmann more than 100 years ago, is an open-minded and dispassionate pursuit of the truth, not balance or both-sidesism. “Seek truth and report it” is the way the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics puts it.
Hussman, unfortunately, has embraced the caricature of objectivity. And Hannah-Jones has gotten caught up in his misunderstanding.
Addendum: In 2019 I wrote about a genuinely innovative idea at the ADG: the paper was giving iPads to its subscribers so it could stop printing the paper and save money. If you let your subscription lapse, it would stop working.
New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is said to be considering a lawsuit over a decision by the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina not to grant her tenure. Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort to recenter American history around slavery that has come under attack on the right.
I’m curious as to what a lawsuit would look like. If she could get a hearing, then perhaps it would be possible to force the trustees to explain their reasoning under oath. But my understanding of the tenure process is that you can be turned down at any stage for any reason.
The trustees of a college or university rarely get involved except to ratify whatever the president brings before them. But, in fact, they have the power to say no even to cases that have been approved by the department, the dean, the provost and the president. When I came up for tenure at Northeastern in 2014, I didn’t relax until the trustees had voted since I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t enraged one or more of them with something I’d written or said over the years as part of my work as a journalist.
Hannah-Jones is eminently worthy of tenure, and a nationwide pressure campaign is under way to push the trustees into reversing their earlier decision. She is being denied something she has earned because the right hates her work and her message. Hannah-Jones has been offered a five-year contract instead of tenure, something that the UNC can do without the approval of the trustees. But with tenure comes academic freedom, and it seems pretty clear that one of the trustees’ motives is to force an outspoken Black woman to be careful about what she says and writes.
Still, I have to wonder if a lawsuit would serve more as a distraction than as a way of overturning the trustees’ unjust vote.
Right-wing critics of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which repositions slavery as central to American history, have claimed their biggest prize yet.
On Wednesday, NC Policy Watch broke the news that Nikole Hannah-Jones, who directed the project and wrote the lead essay, had been denied tenure by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract after which her tenure case would be considered. The trustees’ action came after Hannah-Jones had easily cleared every hurdle on the academic side, leading any reasonable person to conclude that the trustees’ motives were political.
The faculty at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media issued a statement that reads in part:
Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school. This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.
Jeff Jarvis of CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School started a petition calling the decision “an act of blatant partisanship and racism in the academy” and demanding “immediate reconsideration.” As of this writing, about 170 journalism professors had signed, including me and seven of my colleagues at Northeastern University.
Hannah-Jones has been under relentless attack from the right since the moment that the 1619 Project was published in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of slavery in what later became the United States. She won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, but critics have claimed that her work is deeply flawed.
As Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute observes, Hannah-Jones’ appointment provoked outrage on the right when it was announced recently. Here’s a characteristic lead from National Review, written by George Leaf:
To land a professorship in American colleges and universities, you have to either have a superb record of academic achievement or espouse radical leftist ideas. The former still prevails in hard sciences (although standards there are beginning to erode), but in many other academic fields, “wokeness” is now the main consideration.
Leaf, in turn, quotes Jay Shalin, who writes for an organization called the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:
For instance, she claimed that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as British anti-slavery sentiment grew. There is almost no hint of that in factual history.
And that’s where I want to pause for moment. Because that was perhaps the most substantive observation offered by Hannah-Jones’ critics, provoking a response from a number of historians, not all of them conservatives, who claimed that it just wasn’t so. Let me note the response of Hannah-Jones’ editor at The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, who observed that there was, in fact, considerable anti-slavery agitation taking place on the British side:
The culmination of this [anti-slavery rhetoric] was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.
It is notable that Lepore was not among the historians who wrote to the Times. Strangely, the idea that Hannah-Jones was simply wrong in claiming that slavery was an important cause of the revolution has become an article of faith, even though Lepore’s research makes it clear that Hannah-Jones got it right.
Hannah-Jones so far has remained silent:
I've been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful.
But some of the coverage makes it sound like she’s already agreed to the five-year contract. I hope she hasn’t. The whole point of tenure is that it provides you with the freedom of speak out. In effect, the trustees are saying that they want to make sure Hannah-Jones will behave herself before granting her a lifetime contract.
The trustees are meeting later today. They have a chance to undo this outrageous act against a great journalist. Let’s see what happens.
Digital local news is expanding rapidly, but the challenges of running community journalism projects sustainably are daunting.
Those are the conclusions of a recently released report by Project Oasis aimed at documenting the rise of alternatives as legacy community newspapers continue to shrink and shut down. The project, based at the University of North Carolina, is sponsored by Google News, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and Douglas K. Smith.
Project Oasis comprises several parts — a database of digitally focused news projects in the United States and Canada; a “playbook” full of ideas for those who are interested in starting projects in their own communities; and a research report written by Chloe Kizer and edited by Michele McLellan that offers a survey of what’s been learned.
What’s most striking is how much growth there’s been, which is no doubt related to economics (journalists who’ve been downsized out of their jobs are looking to maintain their careers) and opportunity (communities that are either unserved or underserved by legacy media). Project Oasis identified 704 digital-native local news projects in the U.S. and Canada as of a year ago. Of those, 266 were launched in the past five years. In addition, a 2010 study found that there were 126 such projects, “indicating that the past decade has seen the number of local sites multiply six times over.”
The report also draws some conclusions based on 255 organizations that provided information about their operations. Among other things, those outlets tend to be small, with more than half reporting revenues of less than $100,000 a year. Many of the founders are journalists with little or no business background and no resources to hire someone to concentrate on revenue. As the report puts it:
Most founders launch their newsrooms because they are passionate about journalism and their communities. But few start with business expertise. Like their traditional counterparts, the new locals rely heavily on advertising revenue, although some have begun developing reader revenue.
The financial picture does improve as publications mature, according to the data. But this field on the whole is very young.
The report also contains the rather disturbing news that the founders of many sites who who consider them “profitable” aren’t actually paying themselves a salary. Overall, the survey found that most of the sites were for-profits dependent on advertising revenue, whereas a minority were nonprofits subsisting on grants and donations. The report found that those with more than one revenue stream were more successful.
The database of local news projects probably should be taken for what any such survey would be: out of date as soon as it’s published, but interesting as a snapshot in time.
The Massachusetts listings, for example, include some well-known successful projects such as Universal Hub and The Bedford Citizen. But they also include the Banyan Project, which spent years trying to launch a news co-op in Haverhill before giving up, while leaving out WHAV Radio, a nonprofit community radio station in Haverhill with a significant digital presence.
Overall, Project Oasis is a valuable addition to what we know about online local news start-ups. And if you’re thinking of launching a project yourself, you’ll definitely want to spend some time with the playbook.