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Column: UNC’s allegiance lies solely with its donors

UNC began an inquiry on the email records and hard-drive backups of journalism school faculty after the donor agreement between the school, the University and Walter Hussman was published in the News & Observer in July.

As a nationally renowned public institution, UNC is beholden to many stakeholders. The University, however, has demonstrated that it is most allegiant to just one: its donors.

In an invasive overreach of administrative power, UNC is pursuing a probe into faculty emails that is far broader than previously known, according to an initial report from NC Policy Watch.

The Daily Tar Heel also reported on the scope of the UNC’s investigation this week, finding that the University may have sought access to over 20 faculty member emails and hard-drive backups. This probe comes after Walter Hussman’s confidential donor contract was published in the News & Observer last July

Hussman is the publisher of Arkansas’ largest newspaper and namesake of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, following a $25 million donation in 2019.

UNC is seeking answers to how his contract was released, fearing the impacts this may have on other donations to the University. Throughout the process, however, the administration has illustrated that they value donor confidentiality over its own faculty.

Money talks, and to the ears of the University, speaks far louder than the faculty it employs. 

This would not be the first time external finances have impacted our professors. 

Hussman was found to have sent emails aimed at dissuading the University from hiring Black journalist and author of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones. She was initially denied tenure, despite her position as Knight Chair professor and the awarding of tenure to her predecessors. 

While we are unable to draw a clear link between Hussman’s persuasion and Hannah-Jones’ later tenure debacle, this instance murkies the waters around donors and their relationships with faculty members. It raises questions as to why Hussman was involved in hiring conversations to begin with, and how much power donors have over administrative processes, indirectly or otherwise.

As we learn of the extreme depths of this probe, it’s clear that this power is far too expansive.

Journalism professors Deb Aikat and Daniel Kreiss are two targets of the University’s investigation and were asked to sit in for questioning. Aikat agreed, while Kreiss declined. It was in his questioning that Aikat learned about the pervasive intrusions into his email records.

It’s clear that this probe will have dire consequences for faculty, as they suffer invasions of their privacy and an eroding relationship with the University. This comes at a time when UNC struggles to retain faculty, most notably women and BIPOC.

Shortly after the news broke, Kreiss resigned from his position as initiative co-lead for the UNC Strategic Plan.

The University’s actions are inexcusable, especially considering there was no evidence that Hussman faculty would have had access to the donor agreement prior to its publication.

Far too often, donors influence higher education with their philanthropic expenditures. But it is crucial that this conversation focuses on the negligent lack of transparency brought on by UNC. Our University cares more about restricting faculty access to behind-the-scenes deals and processes than donor access to the workings of our institution.

This is a clear demonstration of how maligned UNC’s priorities are, which come at the direct cost of students and faculty who are being caught in the crossfire. 


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Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.