It Didn’t Start With Nikole Hannah-Jones

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S1: You’re a political reporter, right?

S2: Yeah, for most of my career, I’ve covered politics of various kinds, being a, you know, city councils, county commissioners, state legislature.

S1: I called up Joe Killian from North Carolina Policy Watch because I wanted an insider to walk me through exactly what happened when UNC Chapel Hill tried to hire a acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones earlier this year. And if you’re wondering how a political reporter ended up covering a story that you might consider more of a culture war curiosity or part of the education beat, Joe’s got an answer for that.

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S2: I primarily think of it as a political story.

S1: Before we get into the way politics has soaked into a public universities hard decisions, a quick recap. Nikole Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 16 19 project at The New York Times, the winner of a Pulitzer, a Peabody and a MacArthur genius grant. Earlier this year, she was offered a teaching gig at UNC Chapel Hill, but the board of the university refused to vote to grant her tenure, despite the support of her colleagues. It created a standoff that ended just this week. OK, back to the politics of all this.

S2: I mean, it happened in higher education, but it happened in a way that is so familiar to me from covering politics. I mean, some people were getting it wrong when they were following our reporting and they were saying that the university denied her tenure. What they actually did was a lot stranger than that. They just decided not to vote on it. It went into a committee and it never came out. It happens in city councils. It happens county commissioner level. It happens in state parties. It doesn’t generally happen in higher education.

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S1: Joe says this scandal, it was actually years in the making to him. It all seemed to start when Republicans took control of state government a few years back.

S2: And once they were in power, they were not shy about going after a lot of things they thought should change. The UNC system was one of those things.

S1: Joe would show up to report on board meetings for the public universities and just watch this tension boil over.

S2: They were incredibly contentious. Board members themselves were fighting amongst one another. They were at odds with faculty, with leadership at the campus

S1: level, like screaming matches.

S2: Oh, yeah, protests, screaming matches. You know, the board of governors defunded some academic centers at UNC schools that they didn’t like and thought were too liberal. Some of it is generational. Some of it is ideological. Some of it is that these boards don’t look anything like the campuses or the system or even the state. They lean heavily white, heavily male, heavily conservative. Right now, in the UNC Board of governors, there’s one Democrat on the entire board.

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S1: Years before this dust up with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the UNC board was already pushing out school administrators they thought weren’t conservative enough.

S2: And you could just think, wow, there’s just a lot of stuff going on down there. It seems really chaotic, but if you’re covering it long enough, like any beat reporter, you begin to see that it’s not that it’s chaotic, it’s that it’s the same thing happening over and over again, because there is there’s something at play here which is an essential ideological struggle.

S1: I know that you cover North Carolina specifically, but I’m sort of curious whether you see what’s happening in North Carolina is indicative of something larger that’s going on in other places, too. Oh, absolutely.

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S2: At public universities all over the country, there is this struggle because there is not agreement about what higher education, public higher education should be. There’s been this conservative idea that colleges and universities in America are really just manufacturing liberals, you know, and that and that what’s being taught there is not correct. And you hear that all the time. You hear it in mainstream conservative publications, fringe conservative commentary. And increasingly you hear it from Republican lawmakers.

S1: Today on the show, how the fight over one woman’s employment contract became headline news and why what happened in North Carolina might not be an anomaly. A Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. When Joe Killian thinks about Nikole Hannah-Jones and the University of North Carolina, he doesn’t think about what happened this year, he thinks about a much younger Nikole Hannah-Jones before the awards, before the 16 19 project became a political lightning rod. Back when Nikole Hannah-Jones first came to UNC as a graduate student,

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S2: Nikole Hannah-Jones attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She she got her master’s there. She’s a Tar Heel. Yeah. When she was a grad student in the journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill, she really thrived and she really started to become a journalist. And she credits the university with a lot. And so she’s always, as she worked her way slowly up from the Chapel Hill News to the Durham Bureau of the News and Observer to The Oregonian, ProPublica, New York Times along the way, winning every major war in journalism. The Peabody, the Polk Award, National Magazine Awards, the Pulitzer Prize. She has maintained that relationship with UNC. She’s come back and given commencement speeches to the journalism school. She’s come back and gets taught, gets lectured at classes.

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S1: Her Ida B Well, society is based out of UNC.

S2: She co-founded that and it’s headquartered at UNC. So the dean of the journalism school, Susan King, who is herself a pioneering woman in journalism, began to think, you know, let’s bring her back here. You know, let’s set up a night chair for people who don’t know the Knight Foundation and Dallas professorships nice chairs. They bring working professionals and media reporters, producers, people who work in media to universities to share their professional expertise in the classroom.

S1: And traditionally, they get the protection of tenure, which means they have a lifetime appointment. Right.

S2: That’s not the case with every night chair. It’s not the case at every school. But at UNC since the early 80s, when they started this program there every single night, chair has gotten tenure and it’s been presented to applicants that way. And it’s never been a problem. And all of the applicants have been white. This is the first black person, the first black woman who is up for one of these. And it’s the only one that has come up against this sort of resistance.

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S1: And it sounds like when the dean offered this potential position to Nikole Hannah-Jones, she was initially, you know, she has a good job in New York and she had to think about it, but then decided to really throw herself into the application process, teaching classes and going through multiple votes from faculty and other people. What is that process typically like?

S2: This tenure process is incredibly rigorous. Not only do you have to come and do all of those things, you talking about where, you know, you come and you teach and you submit things and people who you don’t even know right things about whether you’d be a good candidate. You know, people who are faculty members and other universities, the faculty in the department has a vote. The tenure committee has a vote. She passed unanimously through all these things. So it goes up to the to the chancellor and the provost level, the chancellor and the provost recommender. There’s nobody in this process that has a problem with this so far.

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S1: So where did the trouble start?

S2: Well, there was sort of a whisper campaign. You know, she’s such a prominent person, such a prominent journalist and 16 19 project from The New York Times especially has been the focus of such political ire on the political right. I mean, leading political figures were sort of fomenting a sort of a second satanic panic that has to do with critical race theory and the idea that white children are going to be taught to be embarrassed of their history and they want to make us ashamed of America that. Well, school districts are now using the sixteen 19 project from The New York Times, for example, as a curriculum. That project is the work of an out of the closet racial extremists called Nikole Hannah-Jones. The president, Donald Trump, specifically denounced it.

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S3: Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse.

S1: And briefly, I should just say that the nineteen project, the idea of it is that the country was really founded when slaves were first brought to this country and that that is a uniquely American experience that has shaped the country ever since.

S2: Yeah, that’s not a bad way of putting it. I mean, not in a literal sense. She’s saying a better way of thinking about the true founding of the country is through looking at its relationship with slavery. And for that, you got to go to sixteen nineteen. So, yeah, that is in this racial moment that we’re experiencing in this country, been very controversial. And she’s one of a few prominent black journalists and scholars who have taken the brunt of the hit from conservatives on this. So because that is the case and because she’s such a known quantity. It got around that they were pursuing her,

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S1: yeah, what did this whisper campaign look like?

S2: I began hearing about it because there were some people in conservative circles who were talking about it. They were kind of gearing up, you know, to prevent this or make it an issue. One of the things that happened was that there was a conversation between Dean Susan King of the J School and Walter Hussman, Walter Hussman is an Arkansas media magnate whose family for a couple of generations has owned and operated a lot of newspapers, television stations in Arkansas.

S1: His name is also on the J School at UNC.

S2: Yeah, because in twenty nineteen he donated twenty five million dollars or pledged twenty five dollars million to the schools and they named it after him. It’s now the Hussman UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. And they also agreed to what he calls his core values of journalism into a walled off at the at the school. And these are primarily about objectivity and restoring faith in journalism, things that sound really good, sort of on their face. If you if they’re abstract ideas, once you begin to learn what Hussman thinks they are and how they could be weaponized to attack journalism he doesn’t like, it becomes kind of a different story.

S1: So Hussman calls the dean and says, hey, I’ve heard

S2: that this is where it gets super strange. Hussman doesn’t call the dean. The Dean calls Hussman, huh? And says we’re thinking about hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones. He says, well, I don’t much like that idea. Here are my concerns. I don’t like the 16 19 project. I’m concerned. Historians have said that they have some problems with it. They think that they’re historical things in it. You know, she says, well, listen, it’s got its critics. They’ve answered those criticisms. You know, we’re going to make the decision here ourselves. We think it’s a good one. He says, well, I disagree with you. She says, well, I disagree with you. I guess I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. Do they do that? Not so much. What Hussman does is contact the the chancellor, Kevin Busquets. He contacts the vice chancellor who’s in charge of charitable giving at the university.

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S1: So he goes over her head.

S2: Yeah. And he also sends emails that he sent to them to a member of the board of trustees who will ultimately be responsible for tendering or not tendering.

S1: And that’s why I’m like really weird things start happening, which is the board just not voting on whether Nikole Hannah-Jones gets tenure.

S2: Yeah, generally a slate of candidates come to the board and they vote on them. And it’s just it’s so rarely controversial. What they did was they just decided, well, not this one. We’re not voting on this one. And when there was pushback on that, like, well, why not? They were like, well, we’ve got questions. Questions about her. Well, what are your questions? How can we assuage them? We’re just not going to vote. We’re going to vote this meeting. We’re not going to put that meeting. We’re going to keep pushing it out. She’s not going to get a vote. It’s not going to happen. So if you want to hire her, you’ve got to find some workaround because it’s not coming before the board. We’re not taking a public vote on it. This is not like I said, this is not uncommon in politics. And it’s easy to see why, because if they have a public vote, they’re going to have to reckon with her credentials and her. She would easily be the most decorated journalist, maybe the most decorated faculty member at UNC Chapel Hill. It’s just going to be very difficult for them to argue she’s not qualified.

S1: Who is this board? Because it sounds like at this point in the process, Nikole Hannah-Jones has the support of the dean of the school. She would work for the faculty, the tenure committee. That’s a lot of people power. Who are the folks who are able to say no to this?

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S2: Here’s how it works in North Carolina. In North Carolina, the governing board of the entire UNC system is the board of governors. They are directly appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly, which effectively means they’re appointed by whichever party is in power in the North Carolina General Assembly,

S1: which right now is Republicans.

S2: Yeah, and Democrats in the General Assembly will tell you, no matter how many times they put forward somebody and say, hey, how about this person for the board of governors, that person not getting on the board. The slate of people who are getting on the board of governors are the people that Republicans pick. Who are they picking, you might ask? Well, it is largely an assembly of former Republican lawmakers, active current Republican lobbyists, active current conservative activists.

S1: So what you’re saying is really diverse.

S2: Yeah, yeah. Four former heads of the North Carolina Republican Party, for instance. The board is overwhelmingly white. It is overwhelmingly male. It is overwhelmingly conservative. Now, that’s not the board that we’re dealing with in the Hannah-Jones’ case. That’s the board of trustees, which is the campus level board. The campus level board is also they’re also made of political appointees. But in North Carolina, this is how it used to work. The governor appointed some members of the board of trustees. Some of the members were appointed by the board of governors who are appointed by the General Assembly. When the last Republican to hold office as governor in North Carolina lost, Pat McCrory lost to Democrat Roy Cooper. The General Assembly stripped the governor of an. Appointment powers on board of trustees so that it would just remain in Republican control.

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S1: This sounds familiar. This is like what happened in Wisconsin when all of a sudden there was a Democratic governor and the legislature was like, you know what, though? We think the governor should not have power anymore.

S2: That’s not I mean, it’s certainly not the only state where it’s happened in North Carolina. This particular power is certainly not the only one that’s been stripped from not only the governor, but also other Democratic politicians who come to power. And in between when they’re elected and when they take office, the General Assembly steps in and takes some of their powers away.

S1: So how unprecedented is it for a board like this to say we’re just going to punt on this like we’re not going to give you the approval you want?

S2: It is extremely, extraordinarily rare that we get to this level and be voted down. But it’s not that that’s never happened in history. It is unprecedented as far as we can tell, for them to just kill it in committee and never to come to a vote.

S1: After the break, have Republicans at the highest levels in North Carolina got themselves involved in this tenure decision? We’ll be right back. After punting on this 10 year decision twice, the University of North Carolina came back to Nikole Hannah-Jones a few months back and said, let’s do this. We’ll give you a five year contract with the opportunity to secure tenure later on. This was a compromise. Hannah-Jones writes about this moment in a statement she released this week. She said she was crushed. She didn’t understand why her tenure hadn’t been approved, but she wanted to avoid the humiliation of being known as the first night chair at UNC not to get tenure. So she figured she’d just take the deal, make the best of it. She signed a contract. But then that whisper campaign against Hannah-Jones, it got louder this spring, a conservative Web site in North Carolina published an article about Nikole Hannah-Jones. And I feel like this is when the public starts to get an inkling that something is going wrong here. The article basically makes the argument that Nikole Hannah-Jones shouldn’t be teaching at UNC at all. And it’s a travesty that somehow there’s been some kind of deal to get her to teach without the board having their stamp of approval. And this is this is when you get involved, because you seem to see that reporting and say there’s a story here.

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S2: What you’re talking about, I think, is publication from the James Martin Center. Yeah, that’s sort of a conservative think tank in North Carolina. And it is very easy to pay attention to what the Martin Center publishes to pay attention to what is published in a conservative publication called the Carolina Journal. There are members of the Board of Governors and members of the General Assembly who will walk into committee rooms with printed out copies of things that were published on the Martin Center website or Carolina Journal and read them aloud when they’re talking policy. You know, this is a very influential group.

S1: So when you saw this post, you knew it wasn’t just like another blog post. It was more than that.

S2: Yeah. When it reaches that level, there’s already something in play. The piece that you’re referencing, I believe, said this is terrible, that they would do this, that they would hire her and the board should prevent it. And here’s how. And if they’re not willing to do it, it says the board of governors who appoint them should replace them or they should take over the process.

S1: It was not a subtle article.

S2: Yeah, not at all. It put it right out there. And frankly, as a political reporter, I appreciate that kind of candor here. It makes my job a lot easier.

S1: Joe Killian started working the phone and his story came together pretty quickly. Board members told him this tenure decision was stuck in committee at the behest of Republican state lawmakers, as well as that big donor to UNC Chapel Hill, the one with the journalism school named after him, Walter Hussman.

S2: I mean, Walter Hussman is a very influential graduate of the journalism school himself. He is he’s given an enormous amount of money to that school and he’s very plugged in in conservative circles.

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S1: I know you interviewed Walter Hussman. What did he say to you about his role?

S2: Hussman has got this very interesting affect.

S1: You said he’s folksy,

S2: he’s very folksy. It’s like it’s like talking to Mr. Rogers with a mix of Bill Clinton. He’s like, hey, I got to I got I got a note here. You’re looking to talk to me. I’m happy to talk to you. Well, let me let me lay out for you what happened here. Really, what happened is I didn’t do anything wrong. I you know, I had some conversations. I offered my opinion. But when when a win is a win is a, you know, a long alumni of the school not allowed to do that. And I said, well, you know, most alumni of the school wouldn’t have the inside track on who’s being hired and they certainly wouldn’t have access to the dean, the chancellor, you know,

S1: they wouldn’t have the school named after them.

S2: Yeah. Nikole Hannah-Jones is an alumni. If she called somebody up and said, here’s who I think you should hire, they’d say, I’m sorry, who is this? You know, they certainly wouldn’t say, oh, well, by your leave, you know. You know, I had this I had this very long, you know, polite conversation with him. It wasn’t hostile in any way wherein he just said there’s nothing wrong with anything. I did. I wasn’t lobbying for anything. And I said, well, would you describe to me how you weren’t lobbying? And he’s like, well, all I did was I had a conversation with the dean where and I tried to convince him this was a bad idea. Then when that didn’t work, I sent up to five emails that I can remember to the chancellor, to the vice chancellor for charitable giving, also to a member of the board of trustees. But I wouldn’t call that lobbying for an outcome. I wasn’t trying to influence their decision.

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S1: It just sounds like he’s deeply divorced from acknowledging his own power.

S2: Yeah, well, you know, I find that, you know, in my line of work, I find that there are two types of very powerful people, powerful people who badly want you to know how powerful they are. And then there are people who are very powerful who want you to understand that really they have no power.

S1: And he’s the latter.

S2: I would say that he’s the latter. Yeah.

S1: In the end, Walter Hussman desire to keep Nikole Hannah-Jones off campus got overwhelmed by public pressure. Local reporting, like Johs, was being read by UNC students, including the student body president who insisted UNC board finally hold that tenure vote. But by the time they did, Nikole Hannah-Jones had seen the chancellor of the university stay quiet about the whole saga. He was walking a political line, so even though the university did offer her tenure, finally she rejected it. And instead Hannah-Jones took a job at Howard University, the Mecca of BCUZ in the U.S..

S4: Well, I’ve decided to declined the offer of tenure. I will not be teaching on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a very difficult decision, not a decision I wanted to make. It’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint. And I believe my race and my gender should.

S2: You know, I think it’s important to say here that Nikole Hannah-Jones has spent her whole life, as she said herself, being asked to fit into white spaces

S4: since the second grade. When I started being bused into white schools, I’ve spent my entire life proving that I belonged in elite white spaces that were not built for black people. And I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore.

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S1: That part of why I was so brought in by your reporting is that you’ve really made clear how this controversy over Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. Is really just the latest issue on the UNC campus, both with the boards, but then also just in the school itself, like in the last few years, very recently, there was a controversy over a Confederate statue. And I think I think if you told the details, it might be unbelievable to some people what happened. I wonder if you’d tell that story.

S2: Yeah, well, so there’s a Confederate statue. There was a Confederate statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina. It was nicknamed Silent Sam that stood on the university grounds for more than a hundred years. It is a statue with a very shameful history. It is supposed to commemorate people who were students at the university who joined the civil war in the cause of the Confederacy. It was placed there at the university not right after the Civil War, but during the sort of flush of the Jim Crow era, when people were really adopting this lost cause ideology and trying to glorify the Confederacy.

S1: And many of the students wanted it taken down for generations.

S2: Yeah. And and had been working for decades to remove it in a way that was legal and followed all the rules. And they, you know, went through every process they could go through. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law specifically to protect statues of this type from being removed even by the communities in which they stand and in the schools where they are in courthouses, and to make it virtually impossible to remove them. And so stymied and unable to do this in a legal way, protesters toppled the statue on the campus. And so what happened after that was members of the Board of Governors, Board of trustees and conservatives in North Carolina said, put it back up. We would like to erect a Confederate statue now in the modern era.

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S1: And this was twenty. Eighteen.

S2: Yeah. And so this was for a lot of reasons, very bad idea of people who are white supremacists are showing up, sometimes armed on campus to quote unquote defend the statue. You know, and it’s just a terrible, terrible idea to deal with this any further. So what did the university do about this? Well, in their telling to try to get around this law, the state law that’s still in place, that protects these statues, they made a secret deal with a neo Confederate group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whereby the Sons of Confederate Veterans who don’t have anything to do with the statue, assert that it is their property and that they’ve gotten rights to it from the daughters of the Confederacy, which did, in fact, was the group that so many years before had had erected the statue and that they’d be willing to take it off the university’s hands in a legal way if they would give them the statue and several million dollars

S1: technically for upkeep of the statue, but still over two million dollars to maintain a Confederate

S2: statue. That’s exactly right. And the leader of that group in a celebratory email said we’re going to use some of that money to build a headquarters for ourselves. We’ve won our allies in the UNC system and the Board of governors and the General Assembly helped us do this. It was a huge controversy and the public only found out about it when it was done deal and it had been announced.

S1: So what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones when I listen to all of this history? Is part of a pattern, and it becomes clear, like in the weeks after the ten year back and forth was reported on, there was some reporting that, for instance, I think 70 percent of black faculty had considered leaving the institution. And when you place what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones into the wider context, you can understand why that it’s just one more incident that might make that faculty feel unwelcome.

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S2: Yeah. In fact, a prominent tenured black professor named William Starkey in the history department told me he thinks that it’s probably closer to 90 percent. And there are other professors who are leaving there and are publicly saying this is why we’ve got professors who they were trying to recruit, who are top people in their fields who’ve said, I’m not coming there, and this is why. So, yeah, there’s a it’s not a theoretical cost.

S1: So for people who live in North Carolina, is the solution to this problem. In their educational system. The same solution we keep hearing about for every other political fight, we’re in the middle of a vote like that’s the only way out given the way the boards are appointed.

S2: If you disagree with what they’re doing. Yeah, if you agree with what you’re what they’re doing. And this is these are the glory days. While Hussman likes to talk about objectivity in reporting, if I if I’m totally objective about this and I overlook any number of things that are ethically objectionable or outright illegal, and I just sort of look at this from the totally objective lens than what I see is a political struggle between two sides, a conservative general assembly, and they’re political appointees and faculty, staff, alumni and students of the University of at Chapel Hill and many universities in the UNC system who are more liberal or more progressive. And they have competing interests and competing philosophies about the university, how it should operate and what should stand for. And one of them is in power and one of them is not.

S1: Joe Killian, thank you so much for joining me.

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S2: Glad to.

S1: Joe Killian is an investigative reporter at NC Policy Watch, and that’s the show, What Next is produced by Elaina Schwarze Carmel Delshad, Mary Wilson, Danielle, Hewitt and Davis Land. We are led by Allison Benedikte and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter whenever you want. I’m at Mary’s Desk tomorrow. Stay tuned to this feed. What next? TBD is going to be here. Henry Gerber is going to be in the hosting chair and he’s going to be talking about what happens with remote work once we all go back to the office. OK, I’ll catch you back here on Monday.