Nikole Hannah-Jones says no to UNC, accepts tenured position at Howard instead

Howard University. Photo (cc) 2008 by AgnosticPreachersKid.

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.

Update: Hannah-Jones has released a remarkable statement.

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A few parting thoughts about Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the role of trustees and donors

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2018 by Alice Vergueiro / Abraji.

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.

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Nikole Hannah-Jones won’t accept UNC’s job offer unless she is granted tenure

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

Update: There’s a protest today, called by the University’s Black Student Movement. The dean of the journalism school has endorsed it.

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:

Last week the Carolina Black Caucus reported 70 percent of its members said they are considering leaving the university.

The school has lost multiple high profile Black recruits, faculty and staff members since the controversy began. Professors are also reporting they have spoken with Black students at the undergraduate and graduate level who have decided not to return to the university as a result of the university’s actions in the Hannah-Jones case.

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.

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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.

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UNC donor reportedly opposes Hannah-Jones’ hiring because she’s not ‘objective’

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

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.)

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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.

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