When it was revealed that the university’s board of trustees ignored a faculty recommendation to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones when she was hired this spring, initial press accounts suggested it may have been due to pressure from conservative activists who have raised objections to the lauded yet polarizing 1619 Project, an extensive exploration of the impact of slavery on American history, which she oversaw for the Times and for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year.
Yet it appears the university also received some pointed lobbying on the subject from Hussman — an alumnus whose name adorns UNC’s journalism school, thanks to a $25 million pledge of support that makes him the school’s largest ever donor.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” he wrote last summer in an email to the school’s dean, Susan King, according to the news site the Assembly. “Based on [Hannah-Jones’s] own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it.”
He copied the university’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, and one of its vice chancellors, David Routh.
After the university’s board opted not to vote on the tenure recommendation for Hannah-Jones, the journalism school instead signed her to a five-year contract with the future possibility of tenure review — though the original proposal remains with the board, which is now facing growing pressure to vote on it.
Hussman, in an interview, denies influencing King and the journalism school. "I had so much influence they still hired her," he says with a laugh. He said he never threatened to withhold the balance of his $25 million commitment to the school if Hannah-Jones was hired.
Yet by making recommendations about academic decisions, Hussman put himself “in very dangerous territory,” argued Douglas A. Blackmon, a Pulitzer-winning historian and professor at Georgia State University who worked as a reporter for the Hussman-owned Arkansas Democrat newspaper in the 1980s. “It’s the kind of activity that threatens academic freedom. The instant Walter Hussman began inserting his own views about who deserves tenure — that’s an ethical violation on his part. The university should have shut it down. It’s inappropriate.”
Hussman, a former reporter and decades-long publisher, casts his objections to Hannah-Jones in journalistic terms.
“I just had some real concerns” about the accuracy of her work, he said in an interview. The 1619 Project, he said, “didn’t seem to uphold the core values” of journalism. The school is in the process of chiseling Hussman’s values on a granite tablet that will be displayed in its entry hall.
Hussman, who is White, said he objected to Hannah-Jones’s assertion in her 1619 Project essay that American colonists waged the Revolutionary War to preserve slavery, a statement that the Times later clarified. He also took issue with her statement that Blacks “for the most part . . . fought back alone” against discrimination, violence and subjugation. This, Hussman said, failed to reflect the contributions of abolitionists and others who sought emancipation and equality throughout American history.
“Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize,” Hussman wrote in his email to King, “courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer Prizes, too.”
He also objected to certain elements of a separate essay by Hannah-Jones last summer advocating reparations for Black Americans.
“What she’s written is false,” he said in an interview. “To me that doesn’t fit with restoring credibility to news reporting in America.”
He added, “As a donor, I should have no authority on who the school hires or fires. I didn’t apply pressure to anyone. It’s not my purview to pass judgment on [whether Hannah-Jones is qualified]. I said, ‘Look, these are my concerns. You can do anything you want with them.’ ”
Hannah-Jones declined to comment.
UNC spokesman Joel Curran said the university wasn’t able to comment on specific personnel issues. But he said in a statement, “We have long relationships with our donors, and we listen to their input on a wide variety of matters. But when a gift is made, our development team makes it clear that donors should have no expectation of influencing curriculum or personnel decisions.”
Hussman, 74, is the third generation of his family to head its media company, Little Rock-based WEHCo Media Inc. (The company name reflects his father’s initials.) The privately held company operates newspapers, magazines and cable TV systems across six states in the South and Midwest.
Hussman Jr. took over as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat at the age of 27 shortly after his family acquired the Little Rock newspaper in 1974.
He then waged a long and withering battle against the dominant morning paper, the Gazette, which had been a progressive champion of the civil rights movement. The Gazette won Pulitzer Prizes for public service and editorial writing in 1958 for its coverage of the school integration crisis in Little Rock.
Hussman’s Democrat, meanwhile, was sharply conservative on its editorial pages, Blackmon said, and was especially critical of the state’s young governor, Bill Clinton, and his lawyer wife, Hillary Clinton. The Democrat newspaper, he said, was especially keen to emphasize corruption allegations starting in the 1980s surrounding the Clintons’ investment in the Whitewater real estate development, a murky saga that led to lengthy investigations but never resulted in charges for the Clintons.
The Democrat’s battle with the Gazette culminated in 1984 when the Gazette sued its rival, arguing that the Hussman-owned paper was illegally using profits from WEHCo’s other businesses to cross-subsidize its losses and drive the Gazette out of business. A federal jury found in 1986 that the Democrat’s business tactics were legal, effectively sealing the Gazette’s fate.
WEHCo eventually drove under the newspaper that had won admirers for its work on behalf of civil rights. WEHCo acquired the Gazette’s assets in 1991, renaming its flagship paper the Democrat-Gazette.