‘What the Hell Happened?’ Inside the Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure Case

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Maybe a historian could allay the donor’s concerns.

Last August 24, Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher, had a midday phone call with James L. Leloudis, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Hussman had pledged to donate $25 million to the journalism school.

By this point, few people knew that the Hussman School of Journalism and Media was planning to hire Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times and a Chapel Hill alumna. The school’s full professors had learned of the plan only weeks before, when Susan King, their dean, convened the group for a sub rosa Zoom meeting and urged them not to publicly discuss the still-developing deal, according to people who attended.

But Hussman was more plugged in than most, and King had told him about the plan sometime in August, he recalled. Hussman set about educating himself on Hannah-Jones, reading at first the opening essay of her highest-profile work, “The 1619 Project.” The project, which situates slavery at the center of American history, has been both heralded as a long-overdue corrective of the rah-rah version of the nation’s founding and criticized by some historians for inaccuracies. Donald J. Trump, as president, went further, lumping “1619” in with critical race theory as a form of “ideological poison” that ought to be counterbalanced with “patriotic education.”

Before he knew it, Hussman had curated his own personal summer book club centered on Hannah-Jones’s work and the commentary around it. He read parts of “1619,” and moved on to “What Is Owed,” Hannah-Jones’s New York Times Magazine piece on reparations. He read a Politico column by Leslie M. Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University, titled “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.”

“I read the stuff on the World Socialist Web Site,” Hussman told The Chronicle, sounding a bit aghast at how far he had descended down the rabbit hole, “and they were criticizing. I mean, I tried to read everything.”

In her Politico column, Harris said she had worried that Hannah-Jones’s overstated claim that the preservation of slavery was a central cause of the Revolutionary War would give critics an opening to discredit the entirety of an otherwise important work, which, Harris said, is “exactly what has happened.”

For Hussman, who is 74 years old, the criticism that Hannah-Jones’s work is driven more by a political agenda than solid facts is particularly troublesome. He has staked his journalistic identity around a set of “core values,” which call for “impartiality” in reporting that is free of “personal opinion or bias.” The values are printed every day on the second page of each of the 11 daily newspapers he and his family own. They hang, too, on the wall of the journalism school that bears his name.

After reading Hannah-Jones’s work, Hussman seized upon her assertion that, in the struggle for equal rights, “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone.” That didn’t sound right to the longtime newsman, who thought it left out the contributions of white journalists who had endured death threats for their coverage of the civil-rights movement. And what about white abolitionists? he asked Leloudis, the history professor.

“He said, ‘You know, we had an abolitionist society of course in New England, but there was even an abolitionist society in Virginia,’” Hussman recalls. “I said, ‘Abolitionist society in Virginia? That’s news to me.’”

Leloudis recalls his conversation with Hussman as cordial. In the professor’s view, “1619” is “absolutely invaluable.” It frames for a broad audience a conversation about the nation’s history that historians have been having for decades.

Ultimately, Hussman was unmoved. “I did not convince him,” Leloudis said, “that he should give up his concerns about the content of ‘The 1619 Project’ and the basic argument it’s making about race and American history.”

Leloudis pointed to a larger issue at play in the opposition to the project, which is often criticized for being overly divisive. That’s the same sort of argument, he said in an email to The Chronicle, that opponents of civil rights made about protesters sitting at lunch counters and marching in the streets.

“An appeal to civility,” Leloudis wrote, “was wielded as a powerful political weapon in service to the racial status quo. And, I fear, we find ourselves in a very similar situation today.”

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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