Top Donor Stands In The Way Of Nikole Hannah-Jones Receiving Tenure


NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19: Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the "Neutral Ground" premiere during the 2021 Tribeca Festival at Pier 76 on June 19, 2021 in New York City.

Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival

A pair of recent interviews from Nikole Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman has shed light on why the distinguished journalist was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina.

Earlier this year, Hannah-Jones was offered the Knight Chair In Race And Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina. Typically, this teaching position comes with tenure, but she was offered a fixed, five-year contract instead. The university's decision to offer Hannah-Jones a five-year contract instead of tenure was met with criticism from Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Ava DuVernay, Ta-Nehisi Coates and several members of the faculty.

Weeks after the polarizing development, Hannah-Jones is still set to teach two classes at the university in the fall. Also, a recent report from NPR has shined a bit of light on the decision to offer the Pulitzer Prize winner a fixed contract instead of tenure.

The University of North Carolina reportedly offered the MacArthur Fellow tenure, but the school's board of trustees shot the proposal down. Those close to the matter suggest that the decision was made on the grounds of "race, politics and, perhaps surprisingly, on a clash between diverging views of journalism." The biggest opponent to Hannah-Jones receiving tenure appears to be the top donor at the University of North Carolina's Hussman School of Media and Journalism, Walter Hussman.

Both Hussman and Hannah-Jones both agreed to speak to David Folkenfilk of NPR separately. In both of their interviews, the two appeared to be on opposite sides of discussions about race, journalism and American society.

On the matter of journalism, Hussman believes that journalists must be impartial or neutral. Hannah-Jones believes that newspapers must reflect experiences of everyday readers.

"I worry that we're moving away from those time-tested principles of journalism that we had in the 20th century that were so effective at engendering tremendous trust in the media," Hussman said.

"Most mainstream newspapers reflect power," Hannah-Jones countered.

"They don't actually reflect the experiences of large segments of these populations, and that's why many of these populations don't trust them. So when I hear that, I think he's speaking to a different audience."

Hussman has taken particular issue with Hannah-Jones' most prominent journalistic endeavor, The 1619 Project. Alongside her colleagues at The New York Times, Hannah-Jones explored how the transatlantic slave trade and subsequent systems of oppression have impacted American society. The project has earned several awards including the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. Despite the critical acclaim it has received from scholars and journalists, Hussman claims that the project has overstated "overstated the significance of protecting slavery in inspiring the nation's founders to break free of Great Britain." Hannah-Jones has stood by her claims with citations from highly respected academic sources.

Hussman's claims come as little to no surprise. His newspapers have often had a conservative tilt and he has appeared on FOX News with Tucker Carlson multiple times. He appears to be in no mood to change his views on Hannah-Jones's most respected work.

"I would love to ask Nikole Hannah-Jones about the core values," Hussman told NPR.

"I try to be open-minded. If Nikole Hannah-Jones has information, has data, has facts about how the Founding Fathers fought the Revolutionary War to protect slavery, I'd love to see them."

Hussman School of Media and Journalism Dean Susan King has attempted to intervene, but it appears that she has made little to no progress on Hannah-Jones's behalf.

"Walter is a man of integrity," King said.

"I think he's very dogged in what he believes in. I don't think he should be trying to influence who we bring in as faculty. And I've told him that. I realize, however, that his name is on the school, and so he cares."

In spite of Hussman's criticism and King's failed mediation, Hannah-Jones is looking forward to working with students at her alma mater. Regardless of what heads her way, she is prepared to stand by what she believes in as it pertains to journalism.

"We are both graduates of that journalism school," Hannah-Jones said about Hussman.

"We are both people who've been in the newspaper industry for a very long time. And no one person gets to establish the rules of our trade."

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