One-party control = Campus chaos

By Gary Pearce Guest columnist

The School of Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill fostered North Carolina’s tradition of great newspapers, reporters and editors. Now it fosters a debate engulfing the school, the entire university and journalism itself.

The debate flows from one-party control of universities’ boards of trustees.

UNC-CH trustees refused to grant tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was offered a Knight Chair in Investigative Journalism. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Black journalist who led The New York Times 1619 examination of slavery in America. Both previous Knight Chairs, who were White, were tenured.

Each university’s Board of Trustees has 13 members. Before December 2016, the UNC Board of Governors elected eight trustees and the Governor appointed four. Each student body president is the 13th member.

Then Democrat Roy Cooper was elected Governor in November 2016. The next month, the Republican-majority legislature hurriedly passed – and outgoing Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed – a bill stripping the governor of trustees’ appointments.

The legislation gave the Governor’s appointments to the General Assembly, two elected by the House and two by the Senate. The legislature also selects all members of the Board of Governors – and always has.

So now, directly or indirectly, the legislature appoints all trustees.

According to research by a UNC alum, who asked not to be named, here’s a breakdown of the Board of Governors’ 25 members: 20 are male (80%), 21 are White (84%), 20 are Republicans (80%), four are Unaffiliated and one is a Democrat.

Of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees’ 13 members, 11 are male (84%), 12 are White (92%), seven are Republicans (53.8%), two are Unaffiliated (15.3%) and four are Democrats (30.8%).

The alum wrote me:

“More diversity on the board could theoretically rein in some of the craziness over there. Or would at least ensure that other perspectives are included before they do something.”

More diversity might also help keep strong women leaders.

First Margaret Spellings left as President of the UNC system. She had been Education Secretary for George W. Bush, but wasn’t conservative enough for the Board of Governors. Then Carol Folt was forced out as UNC-CH chancellor after she took a strong stand for removing the Silent Sam monument.

Will today’s controversy jeopardize Susan King, the dean of the journalism school since 2012?

John Drescher reported in The Assembly digital magazine that the man the journalism school was named for in 2019 – Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette – emailed King and other UNC-CH leaders last December about Hannah-Jones:

“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project…. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it.”

Drescher wrote that the pushback from Hussman, who pledged $25 million to the school, “underscores issues about donor influence at the university, which is increasingly reliant on major gifts in light of mandated tuition freezes and minimal legislative-funding increases.”

Drescher, a graduate of the journalism school, is former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post.

He wrote that a debate is raging between journalists like Hussman, “an evangelist of old-school objectivity,” and “a growing number, including many younger journalists, (who) see objectivity as a trap.”

Hannah-Jones put it this way in an NPR podcast:

“(W)hen white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting,’ what they’re saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective … with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective.”

The journalism school is the right place for that debate. But can the school survive the debate?

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.