No winners in UNC-NHJ battle

Published June 3, 2021

By Rick Henderson

We may never learn the whole truth and nothing but surrounding Nikole Hannah-Jones’ job search at UNC-Chapel Hill. If you’ve not paid attention, here’s a fine explainer from The News & Observer. The latest: 

"The UNC trustees have received an official re-submission for Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment. So, it’s back in their hands, and the committee is reviewing her dossier.

But, they don’t have to vote on it.

Hannah-Jones’s legal team told UNC-CH it has until Friday to offer her tenure or face a federal lawsuit, NC Policy Watch reported."

The folks at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and on UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees are hiding behind the “personnel exemption” in state public records laws to evade some disclosure.* But former N&OExecutive Editor John Drescher unearthed compelling new information in a story The Assembly published over the weekend.

Drescher (who worked with Hannah-Jones at the N&O) got emails and sources, some on the record, to discuss the back story. Walter Hussman is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher who pledged $25 million to the school. His name adorns the entrance to the department and is on the letterhead.

Hussman is old school. Hannah-Jones is not.

Hannah-Jones’ work on The 1619 Project has become a touchstone in the culture war. It exemplifies the different views Hussman and Hannah-Jones hold about the practice of journalism. Presumably, the way it should be taught, too.

From Drescher’s reporting, Hussman wasn’t happy Hannah-Jones was recruited for an endowed professor’s chair which typically comes with tenure. From accounts by John Hood (who’s on the j-school foundation’s board) and the N&O, in January she was one of several candidates for tenure in several departments. Trustee Chuck Duckett raised reservations about Hannah-Jones. Tenure wasn’t offered. Instead, she was offered a five-year contract, not requiring board approval, which could convert to tenure if the board thought she’d earned it.

David French, senior writer for The Dispatch and a former First Amendment litigator and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, raised red flags after initial media stories discussed potential threats to academic freedom:

 David French @DavidAFrench
FIRE’s statement, as usual, is completely correct. An investigation is necessary, and if the refusal to offer tenure was a result of viewpoint discrimination, then there are indeed “disturbing implications for academic freedom.” @TheFIREorg

Our statement on the reports that @nhannahjones was denied tenure at @UNC for viewpoint discriminatory reasons. @adamsteinbaugh
May 20th 2021

Since then, the story has gotten murkier.

Each of Hussman’s newspapers publishes a Statement of Principles around which the publication is committed. The statement also is displayed at the entrance to the j-school as a goal for the department, its faculty and students. 

Again, very old school. Admirable. Perhaps aspirational if not attainable.

Possibly out of step with today’s narrative journalism.I see no winners from this dispute (even if Hannah-Jones prevails in her threatened lawsuit). The interference Hussman reportedly encouraged while she was a candidate has harmed the j-school’s reputation.** If Hannah-Jones joins the faculty, she’ll face much tougher scrutiny than any comparable university employee would receive.

Without tenure, would she pull punches, hoping to get lifetime job security? With tenure, would she continue to treat her critics unprofessionally?

Her students might gain some résumé points from having her as a professor. Would they learn the craft of reporting as well as they might, considering the klieg lights they’d all be under?

Other faculty apparently were blindsided by the potential kerfuffle. From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"The first step in what professors presumed would be Hannah-Jones’s slam-dunk case for tenure came nearly eight months ago, on September 25. On that day, the school’s promotion and tenure committee voted unanimously to recommend that the tenure case for Hannah-Jones, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellow, be sent to the next round of consideration by the school’s full professors. Francesca Dillman Carpentier, the committee’s chairwoman, said the group was not naïve about the politics that surrounded “The 1619 Project.” But they considered Hannah-Jones, who has a master’s degree from Chapel Hill, a dream candidate.

“We didn’t see her as this controversial figure that we wanted because we just really like controversy,” Carpentier said. “We saw her as an alum who had made it, and who had made a real difference in starting difficult conversations.”

The debacle has clarified one thing: UNC’s faculty could stand more diversity. Of thought.