The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo: Grindstone Media Group/shutterstock
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo: Grindstone Media Group/shutterstock

In late April, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced that MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones was being appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. A few weeks later, UNC’s board of trustees declined to approve the journalism department’s recommendation to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

On May 30, John Drescher reported in The Assembly that the school’s namesake, Arkansas-based publisher Walter Hussman Jr., had privately expressed his opposition to Hannah-Jones’s hiring, citing her work with the 1619 Project, which seeks to reexamine the role of slavery in America’s history.

The fast-moving controversy has become a case study highlighting the full spectrum of funder influence in higher education and the extent to which officials heed this influence, given their growing reliance on private dollars.

Hussman committed $25 million to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019. However, he has yet to deliver a substantial portion of the gift, prompting an anonymous trustee to tell Drescher, “We can’t have donors influencing decisions like this. We also don’t want to poke them and have them withdraw their contribution.” Hussman has denied pressuring officials and insists that UNC’s subsequent hire of Hannah-Jones won’t affect his support for the school.

In a statement to Inside Philanthropy, UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Communications Joel Curran said, “Private support is the margin of excellence for a university like UNC-Chapel Hill. 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.”

Meanwhile, Hannah-Jones has received public support from three of UNC’s institutional funders—the Knight Foundation, which endows the Knight chair professorship, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Democracy Fund, which brazenly inserted itself into the tenure process by calling on trustees to “reverse their decision and immediately repair the harm that has been done.’”

The saga is far from over. The faculty committee that handles tenure resubmitted its recommendation that Hannah-Jones receive tenure to the board and UNC officials are currently in discussions with Hannah-Jones’s legal team. Hannah-Jones is slated to begin her teaching duties on July 1.

A controversial hire

Among her many accolades, Hannah-Jones won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the introductory essay to the 1619 Project and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the “Genius Grant.”

The 1619 Project is a long-form journalism project developed by Hannah-Jones, writers from the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” The Times first published the project in August 2019 for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia.

Historians and conservative politicians have objected to parts of the 1619 Project. In a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona protesting a proposed Biden administration rule that aims to address systemic racism, Sen. Mitch McConnell and fellow Republicans cited the project, writing, “Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil.”

In March, the the Times issued a clarification to a controversial passage in an essay from the project, which stated that one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery. The newspaper, along with 150 scholars and UNC-Chapel-Hill faculty, stands by Hannah-Jones’s work.

UNC hired Hannah-Jones for a fixed five-year term with tenure review within that period, in accordance with Knight’s agreement with UNC. That said, the position has historically come with tenure, prompting Hussman faculty to issue a statement claiming the decision “breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school.” University spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said in a statement that “details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information.”

A board member who asked not to be identified told Joe Killian and Kyle Ingram of NC Policy Watch that “politics” was the real reason that trustees didn’t take up Hannah-Jones’s case. “The university and the board of trustees and the board of governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month,” the board member said. “There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”

Enter Walter Hussman Jr., UNC alumnus and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in an email to Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School, obtained by Drescher. Hussman copied David Routh, vice chancellor for university development, and Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor.

“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,” Hussman wrote. “Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.”

“This is an overreach”

Deb Aikat, an associate professor of journalism who serves as an elected member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee, criticized Hussman for inserting himself into the hiring process.

“Walter Hussman gave us a lot of money, and we appreciate it,” Aikat told Drescher. “If you come and tell us who to hire and who not to hire, this is an overreach that nobody would appreciate.” Aikat said there should be “almost a church-and-state division” between donors and the operation of the university. Hussman agreed, telling Kate Murphy at the News & Observer, “I don’t think donors should have a say in who gets hired or who gets terminated in the faculty. And I don’t think any university worth its salt should allow that.”

Aikat’s “church-and-state division” is a compelling metaphor to describe the separation between donors and university decision-makers. But is it accurate?

Back in college, my political science professor once said that the church and the state aren’t separated by a towering brick wall, but by a “beaded curtain.” After all, our currency says “In God We Trust.” People swear on the Bible in court. The chaplain of the United States Senate opens each session of the chamber with a prayer.

It’s comforting to think an impenetrable barrier prevents donors from meddling in university operations, but in reality, the boundary can be just as porous.

Gift agreements can empower donors to hire faculty, while donors have rescinded support precisely because university officials shut them out of the hiring process. Athletic donors dialed back giving to the University of Kentucky after leadership fired its athletic director and basketball coach. The Engelstad Family Foundation revoked a $14 million pledge after the University of Nevada Las Vegas board of regents pushed out President Len Jessup.

These are textbook examples of philanthropy as power—or, if I may belabor another inside-the-Beltway metaphor, “hard” power. Funders, denied the influence they believe should be accorded to them, take their money off the table and walk away. It’s a disturbingly frequent phenomenon that wasn’t lost on the unnamed UNC trustee who expressed fears that aggrieved donors could withdraw their support for the school.

“Pressure” can be relative

What Hussman has done to date may not exactly fit the bill of “hard” power. For one thing, he denies he applied any pressure at all. “Here’s actually the true facts of it,” Hussman told Joe Killian at NC Policy Watch. “I never pressured anybody. I didn’t pressure [UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Dean] Susan King. I didn’t pressure the chancellor. I didn’t pressure [Vice Chancellor for University Development] David Routh or anybody on the board.”

But Hussman’s lobbying efforts nonetheless raised some eyebrows across the UNC leadership ranks. One board member told Killian that “as early as last summer, in September, before this even comes to the board,” Hussman was “emailing the top administrators at the school and he’s contacting former and current board members about things so confidential we’re told we can’t discuss them publicly.”

Killian also reported that Hussman acknowledged sending as many as five emails to King, Routh and Guskiewicz, who, along with provost Bob Blouin, ultimately recommended tenure for Hannah-Jones to the board.

Bear in mind that these are the same administrators who have seen state appropriations per full-time equivalent student decrease by 27% between 2008 and 2018 when adjusted for inflation. Last September, around the same time Hussman began lobbying officials, the Daily Tar Heel reported that UNC could experience financial losses of $400 million up to the middle of summer 2021. In January, UNC-Chapel Hill announced plans to cut personnel costs by 3% and operating expenses by 15% over the next two years.

Hussman insists he wasn’t pressuring officials, but his intervention clearly rattled King, the Hussman School’s dean, who told the Assembly’s Drescher that she “felt worried enough about Walter’s repeated questions challenging our hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones as Knight Chair and his subsequent call to at least one other donor that I asked for help from others in the administration.”

King hired Hannah-Jones and recommended her for tenure anyway, but her comment suggests that mega-donors don’t need to apply blatant pressure to knock administrators off-balance. Call it philanthropic soft power.

Institutional funders speak out

On May 20, the Democracy Fund issued its statement calling on the trustees to grant Hannah-Jones tenure. The grantmaker has provided approximately $700,000 to Hannah-Jones’s work at the Ida B. Wells Society, a project of UNC-Chapel Hill, since 2017.

A rep from the Knight Foundation referred me to President Alberto Ibargüen’s May 21 statement, which read, “It is not our place to tell UNC or UNC/Hussman whom they should appoint or give tenure to. It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and we would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the timeframe of our agreement.”

On June 3, NC Policy Watch reported that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which has given more than $131 million in grants to UNC since 1972, issued a statement in which CEO Richard Besser asked the UNC board to “help us understand the steps it is taking to ensure that Ms. Hannah-Jones is treated fairly and equitably in decisions regarding her appointment.”

Via these statements, other UNC funders are also inserting themselves into the university’s tenure process. In fact, some commentators believe funders should be doing even more to call attention to trustees’ inaction. Steve Katz, the publisher of the nonprofit Mother Jones, lamented the “muted” response from Knight’s Ibargüen, and laid out a menu of more muscular options the funder could pursue, including determining whether legal action can be brought against UNC’s board of trustees and funding the 1619 Project throughout North Carolina.

Contrasting responses

Despite the unwritten rule stipulating that funders should play no role in a university’s hiring decisions, the UNC/Hannah-Jones hire underscores the ways in which grantmakers can exert influence.

Hussman conveyed his concerns to university officials with the expectation that his emails would remain private, telling Drescher he would not have made them publicly. Administrators, presiding over a pandemic-induced financial crisis, read these emails knowing that he had yet to fully deliver his $25 million commitment. Consciously or otherwise, Hussman expressed himself in a way that compelled Hussman School Dean King to ask for assistance from her colleagues.

In contrast, UNC’s institutional funders made public statements in response to the board’s inaction. Knight and the RWJF attempted to thread the needle by diplomatically asking trustees to reconsider Hannah-Jones’s case. The Democracy Fund, on the other hand, didn’t hold back, essentially demanding that trustees grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

As we’ve seen, at least one trustee privately worried about antagonizing a mega-donor like Hussman. I suspect they’re not alone. Paul Friga, a public higher education consultant for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, estimates that U.S. colleges and universities stand to lose a collective $183 billion as a result of the pandemic. Fundraisers’ best hope for a sustained recovery lies with critical “top-of-the-pyramid” alumni who saw their wealth grow throughout the crisis.

But we can also reasonably assume that the unnamed UNC trustee’s concerns about alienating funders also extend to the school’s institutional grantmakers. Leaders can’t help but sit up and pay attention when the Knight Foundation, which endows the position in question, issues a press release encouraging the board to “reconsider their decision” not to offer Hannah-Jones tenure. It’s the unavoidable byproduct of a system where funding and influence cannot be entirely decoupled, despite officials’ insistence to the contrary.

The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund wrote a letter giving UNCuntil June 4 to offer Hannah-Jones a tenured position or face a federal lawsuit. UNC responded to the letter, but trustees let the deadline pass. As of June 10, the NAACP has not filed a lawsuit.