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Major donor pressure revealed in Hannah-Jones tenure controversy as lawsuit deadline looms

UNC-Chapel Hill mega-donor Walter Hussman Jr. lobbied against the school hiring acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in the journalism school that bears his name, digital magazine The Assembly first reported over the weekend.

Nikole Hannah Jones

In e-mails obtained by reporter John Drescher, Hussman criticized Hannah-Jones’s work and said he was worried her hiring would bring controversy to and impact the reputation of the journalism school. In an interview with Drescher and later with WRAL, Hussman said his concern isn’t political but with the preservation of the principle of journalistic objectivity.

Hussman  and the school’s Dean Susan King “agreed to disagree” over whether Hannah-Jones would be good for the school and the $25 million he pledged to the school in 2019 isn’t in jeopardy over the disagreement.

“I didn’t pressure anybody,” Hussman told WRAL. “I care a great deal about the school, and these are my opinions, and I felt like it’s up to the university to make decisions … It’s not my decision, but I think I’d be kind of derelict in my duties if I thought they were making a mistake without at least telling them what I thought about it.”

Hussman is the millionaire publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His family’s company bought the Arkansas Democrat in the 1970s, installing him as publisher at age 27. Hussman instigated and ultimately won a newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette, positioning his paper as a conservative alternative to the Gazette. Hussman’s family lost money in the fight for years until the Gazette was eventually bought by the Gannett newspaper chain, which badly mismanaged it. Ultimately Hussman’s company bought the Gazette and merged it with his own paper to create the Democrat-Gazette.

The revelation of Hussman’s lobbying efforts came after Hannah-Jones’s attorneys set a Friday, May 4 deadline for the school’s Board of Trustees to vote on tenure for their client or face a federal discrimination lawsuit.

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