Major donor emailed UNC chancellor expressing concern over giving Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- When UNC graduate Walter Hussman Jr. pledged $25 million dollars to the school in 2019, his large donation resulted in the school's journalism school bearing his namesake.

That donation, some say, is leading members of the Board of Trustees to consider the opinions of Hussman on personnel decisions and perhaps other matters.

One of those matters, that has since made national headlines, is the decision by the UNC Board of Trustees not to offer Knight Chair Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured position. At least one board member on a committee looking at her tenure expressed concern with her background and work with her Pulitzer Prize-winning work for the 1619 Project.

EMBED More News Videos

"I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project," Hussman wrote in an email last December.



'I am obligated to fight back:' Nikole Hannah-Jones obtains legal counsel in UNC tenure controversy

"Some members of the UNC faculty are clearly unhappy because they feel like Walter Hussman was basically trying to throw his weight around," said journalist John Drescher.

Drescher serves as contributing editor for The Assembly, a new digital magazine for North Carolina. Drescher first reported the lack of a connection with Hussman's donation and possible influence in a recent article in which Hussman Jr. was said to have e-mailed at least one board member, the vice chancellor for university development, the journalism school dean, and chancellor Kevin Guskewicz.

"I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project," Hussman wrote in an email last December, according to Drescher. "I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War."

In Drescher's reporting, he attributes a UNC journalism professor with saying, "this kind of donation should have no strings attached." Drescher said the professor is appreciative of Hussman's donation, "but that shouldn't give him a voice in, for example, hiring decisions."

Lawyers for Nikole Hannah-Jones declined to comment Tuesday.

Hussman Jr. responded after the story had aired. He said he "never pressured anyone at the university."

"I feel, as a donor, I should have absolutely nothing to do with the hiring or firing of anybody on the faculty," he said in a phone interview. "I would not want my alma mater, which is the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, I would not want ... another donor to decide who and who shouldn't be hired. So I want to make that publicly known because I think this article in The Assembly may have given the wrong impression on that."

The legal team for Hannah-Jones has set a June 4 deadline for the university to reconsider her tenure status or face a lawsuit.

A representative for the school sent ABC11 a statement that reads: "We can confirm the University has received a letter from attorneys representing Nikole Hannah-Jones. We have no additional comment at this time."

The Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet again on July 14. There is no immediate word if they plan to hold a special meeting ahead of the July date.

One board member, who did not want to be identified, said this issue brings unwanted attention to the university and would like to be given the chance to vote on the matter.

Attempts to reach Nikole Hannah-Jones were also unsuccessful.
Copyright © 2021 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.