UNC-CH Trustees Cancel “1619” Creator

May 20, 2021: No tenure for Black Pulitzer winner + what the Coleman Report missed + Durham bar loses COVID suit + Brown DA declined state help


1. Arsonists Uninterested in Investigating Fire

After Democrats agreed to their demands, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy decided they weren’t interested in a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, after all.

  • “Just days after GOP leaders decided they wouldn’t force their members’ hands either way, McCarthy and his leadership team issued an informal ‘leadership recommendation’ ahead of the Wednesday vote, urging a ‘no’ vote to help contain defections in their party.”

  • “Former President Donald Trump also sought to shut down the commission on the eve of the floor vote, calling it a ‘Democrat trap’ and urging Republicans to get ‘much tougher and much smarter.’” (Politico)

  • 35 House Republicans defected, more than expected.

  • Mitch McConnell will try to kill the commission in the Senate.

  • “‘After careful consideration. I’ve made the decision to oppose the House Democrats’ slanted and unbalanced proposal for another commission to study the events of January the 6th,’ he said on the Senate floor. The bipartisan commission would have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, five on each side.” (WaPo)

  • McConnell’s opposition means Republicans probably have enough votes to filibuster the commission.

  • That leaves Democrats the option to act unilaterally—the way Republicans did with the Select Committee on Benghazi, which McCarthy later admitted existed to bring down Hillary Clinton’s favorable ratings.

2. UNC-CH Trustees Deny Tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media was all set to award Nikole Hannah-Jones the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured position—and a big get for the j-school. Then the Board of Trustees went and embarrassed the university in front of the whole country.

Hannah-Jones, of course, is the MacArthur Grant-winner behind The New York Times Magazine’s Pulitzer-winning “1619 Project,” which conservatives loathe because it acknowledges that white people did bad things.

  • The UNC-CH Board of Trustees is appointed by the right-wing General Assembly and the UNC Board of Governors—which, in turn, is appointed by the right-wing General Assembly.

  • No sooner did news of her appointment break than right-wingers you’ve never heard of declared her credentials “questionable” and “an activist reporter—not a teacher.”

  • You recall how these folks treated Gene Nichol, right?

Yesterday, the Trustees denied Hannah-Jones a tenured position. She’ll still come to the university, but on a five-year contract as professor of the practice, with an opportunity for tenure afterward.

Reports NC Policy Watch:

Last summer, Hannah-Jones went through the rigorous tenure process at UNC, [Hussman School dean Susan] King said. Hannah-Jones submitted a package King said was as well-reviewed as any King had ever seen. Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, with the process going smoothly every step of the way — until it reached the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

The board reviews and approves tenure applications. It chose not to take action on approving Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“I’m not sure why and I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before,” King said.

Fixed-term positions don’t need board approval. A trustee told PW:

  • “This is a very political thing. The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”

The Hussman faculty released a statement yesterday afternoon condemning the trustees’ decision:

The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC-Chapel Hill. The two immediately preceding Knight chairs in our School received tenure upon appointment. The university counts among its ranks of tenured faculty many leading professionals with distinguished work in their fields. …

We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels. Nikole Hannah-Jones does necessary and transformative work on America’s racial history. The national politicization of universities, journalism, and the social sciences undermines the integrity of and academic freedom within the whole University of North Carolina system.

3. The Coleman Report’s Incomplete Truth

In yesterday’s newsletter, I supplemented my reporting for The Assembly on the Durham County manager controversy with a deeper exploration of the letter Wendell Davis wrote accusing Heidi Carter of racial bias.

Today, I want to dig into the Coleman Report: the two investigations the county hired Duke law professor James Coleman to conduct—one into Davis’s claims of racial bias, the other into whether Davis broke the law or ethics codes by releasing the letter so close to an election.

  • There was actually a third inquiry, by the International City/County Managers Association. The ICMA closed its probe, which appears to have consisted primarily of a conversation with Davis, on July 1, ruling in Davis’s favor. Two months after my public records request, the county hasn’t produced the ICMA report.

  • This is important because Coleman—who did not respond to my requests for an interview—apparently deferred to the ICMA’s findings on ethics violations. To conclude that Davis hadn’t violated any ethics rules, Coleman had to interpret the evidence in a light very favorable to Davis.

Coleman cleared Davis of inappropriate political activity because “there is no evidence to support the claim that the February 11, 2020, letter was intended to influence the primary election.”

  • Like the ICMA, Coleman believed that Davis when he said his real goal was to “encourage” Carter to “reflect how her pattern of statements had impacted me.”

If that’s what Davis wanted, however, he had several ways to do it: He could have confronted her in the one-on-one monthly meetings commissioners had with him. He could have emailed her privately. He could have asked for a closed board session. He could have waited for two weeks, until after the election.

  • He did none of those things.

  • Instead, he emailed the letter to the five commissioners on February 14 and watched that letter turn up in the press four days later.

  • That leaves six people who could have originated the leak that ended up in my inbox. The process of deduction leaves us with two prime suspects. Weeks ago, I requested the emails Brenda Howerton and Wendell Davis sent during this timeframe. The county has yet to supply them.

It’s hard to imagine that Davis didn’t know the letter would leak or that the leak would influence the election. Coleman, in fact, said Davis “knew or should have known that his letter and subsequent public discussion of the allegations made in the letter” would “undermine [Carter] or the public’s trust in the board.”

  • “I don’t think it takes a genius to look at a situation like that—there were no conversations, his job reviews by the board were not going all that well,” a county source told me. “It doesn’t take all that much to put two and two together.”

  • Coleman said he spoke to a “former county manager” who worked with Davis and vouched that he wouldn’t interfere in an election. My sources tell me that person was definitely not Mike Ruffin, under whom Davis served for nearly his entire tenure as deputy manager. Presumably, then, Coleman spoke to David F. Thompson, who hired Davis in 1999 but left in February 2000.

Coleman also accepted former Commissioners Michael Page and Fred Foster’s denials last year of widespread rumors—first made public in a Facebook post by school board member Mike Lee—that Davis had recruited them to run, which would have been a clear ethics violation. (They both ran and lost.)

  • Lee wouldn’t comment on his post.

  • But one source emailed me: “He won’t admit it to you, but Michael Page told me Wendell encouraged him to run again.”

  • Another source told me separately that Fred Foster admitted that Davis had asked him and Page to run, specifically to target Wendy Jacobs and Heidi Carter.

Page and Foster both strongly denied those allegations. Foster said he hadn’t spoken to Davis since leaving office in 2016.

Coleman also found that “under normal circumstances,” Davis violated a tenet of the ICMA ethics code—“demonstrate by word and action the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity … in order that the member may merit trust and respect of the elected and appointed officials, employees, and the public”—but the events following the February 3, 2020, work session “relieved Mr. Davis of his ethical obligation to treat his complaint privately.”

  • According to his report, Davis yelled at Jacobs to “tell [your] colleague that she can’t talk to me that way.” Jacobs replied, “I don’t tell my colleagues how to act.”

  • Commissioner James Hill approached Carter but felt like he was “talking to a brick wall.” Coleman said those two events gave Davis the right to complain directly to Carter.  

Coleman then excused Davis’s on-camera interview with Spectator Magazine on February 21 because he said there appeared to be a “coordinated public campaign against him” following the letter’s publication.

THE POINT: Since the Coleman Report was released in August, Davis’s supporters have held it up as proof of exoneration. But I’m not sure Coleman’s conclusions should be treated as if they were handed down from the mountain.

4. Judge Dismisses Atomic Fern’s COVID Lawsuit Against Durham, State

This ruling was inevitable, but it raises interesting questions regardless:

  • The downtown Durham bar The Atomic Fern was forced to close because, due to pandemic restrictions, it couldn’t pay its rent.

  • Owner Kevin Slater brought a long-shot suit against Durham and the state, alleging that they should pay his losses since he was forced to close under their rules.

  • Yesterday, a judge dismissed his lawsuit.

  • When Slater filed the complaint in January, attorney Daniel Meier explained: “We agree with the mandates, we just say it was an unjust taking without just compensation—we aren't trying to reopen, just trying to save the business.” (WRAL)

5. Pasquotank DA Refused State Help, Declined Special Prosecutor

Not only did Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble develop an, um, interesting interpretation of the evidence when clearing the deputies who shot Andrew Brown Jr. from behind. But Womble, a Republican, also closed the case in defiance of Governor Cooper’s request for a special prosecutor and refused Attorney General Josh Stein’s offer of help.

  • “‘I’m elected by the people of the First District to do exactly this job,’ Womble told reporters in a news conference Tuesday. ‘A special prosecutor, or outside counsel, is not accountable to the people of this judicial district.’”

  • “Following the news conference, Cooper called on federal officials to continue investigating Brown’s death. The FBI confirmed on April 27 that the agency is overseeing a civil rights investigation into the fatal shooting.” (N&O)

  • Under state law, only a district attorney can appoint a special prosecutor—and no one can overrule him.