Featured photo: Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at NCA&T University as part of Greensboro Bound 2022 (photo by Greensboro Bound/Vanderveen Photographers)

This story was originally published by NC Newsline, story by Joe Killian, NC Newsline

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Nearly six months after the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting notified UNC-Chapel Hill it would be moving to Morehouse College, the university has yet to transfer all of the society’s funds — nearly $4 million — to its new home.

That lag, far longer than the society has experienced in previous moves, has ground its work to a halt. The society was forced to cancel its successful summer internship program and scrap a planned program for high school students at N.C. Central University.

“This is all of our funding,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning journalist and bestselling author who cofounded the organization, in an exclusive interview with Newsline.

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“It’s all of our operating funding, all of our grant money, our quasi-endowment,” Hannah-Jones said. “Without it, we can’t work toward our mission, we can’t do any of our work.”

That work has changed the lives and careers of young journalists of color.

The society, named for the pioneering Black investigative journalist, is dedicated to increasing and retaining the number of reporters and editors of color in news organizations. One of its signature programs: a summer investigative reporting internship that funds paid internships on investigative teams at publications like The New York Times, Miami Herald, Washington Post, Associated Press and Pro Publica. College students chosen for the program and funded by the society have won some of the most prestigious awards in journalism — including the Pulitzer Prize.

The society expected to have its funding in place at Morehouse, the renowned historically Black college in Atlanta, in time to select, fund and place 10 interns well before summer. Without access to the money, the society had to cancel that program this year.

The funding — which consists mostly of donations and grants from individuals, foundations and corporations — was held and managed by the university during the society’s time there, a standard arrangement for groups of its kind headquartered at academic institutions. UNC-Chapel Hill and the society estimate the total amount at $3.8 million. Certain grant or donation agreements require funds given to the society be returned to the foundations for re-granting in the event of a move, but even those processes are not usually so prolonged.

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“That’s a process that typically takes a few weeks,” Hannah-Jones said.

The society’s move to Morehouse wasn’t its first. But the group has never had this kind of trouble in transitioning from one university to another, its founders say. Created in 2016, the society was originally based at City University of New York’s Newmark School of Journalism. It transferred to the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2018. A year later, it found a new home at UNC-Chapel Hill, where Hannah-Jones earned her master’s degree.

In each of those moves transferring funds took little more than a month, according to sources directly involved in the process.

“We’d never seen anything like this before,” Hannah-Jones said.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s communications office disputed the society’s characterization of the transfer process in a statement last week, saying it has worked as quickly as possible to transfer the money.

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“Since the Ida B. Wells Society announced its relocation from UNC-Chapel Hill to Morehouse College in February 2023, UNC Hussman has worked to ensure that all funds designated to support the Ida B. Wells Society are transferred as expeditiously as possible while also following the gift agreements with each funder and applicable law,” a spokesperson wrote in the statement.

“We have completed the transfer of nearly $2.1M in funds to date,” the statement read. “We are working with Morehouse College and the relevant funding agencies on the process for the remaining fund transfers.”

“We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with the Ida B. Wells Society from 2019 until 2023 in its work to encourage and retain reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting,” the statement read. “We wish the team all the best in its future work.”

The university said it had, as of last week, completed the transfer of $2.1 million either to Morehouse or to 10 of 13 original funding agencies, with $1.7 million left to transfer to the remaining three.

Representatives of the society, however, said the documented trail of when and how the school transferred money shows a process that was inexplicably slow, harming the group’s work without sufficient explanation.

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The university liquidated $1.1 million in funds given to the society by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation on Jan. 25, taking it out of investments to prepare for the move, according to documents obtained by NC Newsline. In February the foundation informed UNC-Chapel Hill it wanted the funding to be transferred directly to Morehouse. The foundation’s donation was a quasi-endowment whose investment return helped sustain the society, but could be used for other purposes.

However, UNC did not finalize a transfer agreement until May — three months later — by which point Morehouse said it would prefer the money be returned to the foundation for re-granting.

The society’s cofounders — and those working with them at Morehouse — said updates on the progress of the funds transfer were few and vague until last month, despite repeated requests. A number of their inquiries to Mark Richardson, assistant dean of business and finance for the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, went unanswered.

“Right now, we are walled-off from our funds for an unknown reason,” society cofounder Topher Sanders wrote in a May 9 email to Raul Reis, dean of the journalism school. “Our organization cannot do any of its vital and important work because UNC is holding The Society’s money.”

“[T]he ignoring of our communications over such a critical matter is incredibly unprofessional,” Sanders wrote.

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Replying the next day, Reis apologized.

The school had “not been communicating with you as often as we should throughout this process,” he said. Reis provided some updates on funds that had been returned to organizations for re-granting and said he and Richardson aimed to have the funds fully transferred by the end of June — a full six months after the school had first been notified of the society’s move.

Reis agreed to an emergency meeting with the society’s cofounders and staff from the school. No reasonable explanations were given for the extensive delays in transferring the money and the lack of transparency about the details, Hannah-Jones said.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ron Nixon, and Topher Sanders are cofounders of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting

When society leaders told the university officials that they intended to go public if this wasn’t resolved, transfers began almost immediately. On May 12, the day after the meeting, the school wire transferred $502,983.42 in unrestricted gifts to Morehouse and another $106,133.86 in CUNY funds. On May 18, another $100,000 from the Walt Disney corporation was transferred.

UNC-Chapel Hill finalized an agreement with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to return its $1.1 million to the foundation for regranting on May 16, according to an email from the school.

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The cofounders were relieved to see some progress, Hannah-Jones said, but were frustrated it came far too late to save its investigative internship program or the new program for high school students scheduled begin this summer.

“These are such great opportunities for these young journalists,” Hannah-Jones said. “And they’re just gone. This didn’t have to happen.”

Not welcome at the university”: Banned from employment at UNC-Chapel Hill

The Ida B. Wells Society didn’t want to leave UNC-Chapel Hill in the first place. But its founders felt their hand was forced.

Two years ago, Hannah-Jones was being courted by the university to become its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position that was to come with academic tenure. But at the eleventh hour, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees denied Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure.

The story, first reported by NC Newsline, generated international headlines. Intense pressure from students, faculty, alumni and some of the top names in journalism ultimately forced an up-or-down tenure vote. Though the board ultimately approved a tenure offer, Hannah-Jones instead accepted a position at Howard University in Washington, D.C. There she created the new Center for Democracy and Journalism at one of the nation’s most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

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Hannah-Jones has so far raised $24 million for the center at Howard. That funding is unrelated to the society.

The decision became easy, Hannah-Jones said, despite her affection for her alma mater and enthusiasm for teaching journalism there. Reporting revealed the political depths of the tenure conflict, including heavy lobbying against Hannah-Jones’ hire from conservative mega-donor Walter Hussman, for whom the journalism school was renamed following his $25 million pledge to the school in 2019. Hussman cited objections to Hannah-Jones’ award-winning 1619 Project, concerns about her political views and objections to her writing about reparations for Black Americans for slavery.

UNC-Chapel Hill reached a legal settlement with Hannah-Jones last year, paying her $74,999.99 — a penny shy of the threshold that would have required approval by the UNC System’s Board of Governors. More importantly, Hannah-Jones said, she secured a number of concessions in the settlement that addressed concerns of student and faculty groups. Those included a commitment from the university to train 20 faculty as search and selection advisers through UNC’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the hiring of an additional trauma informed therapist, and more funding for the Carolina Black Caucus through 2025.

Hannah-Jones made her own concessions. In negotiations, the university wanted a lifetime ban on her teaching at or being otherwise employed by the university, she said. She wouldn’t agree to that but did consent not to apply for employment with UNC-Chapel Hill through Jan. 1, 2028.

“This provision does not restrict Ms. Hannah Jones’s right to participate, speak or attend any University-sponsored meeting, events or symposia or otherwise participate in any non-employment capacity with the University,” the settlement reads.

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Nonetheless, Hannah-Jones said, the message was clear: She was no longer welcome at her alma-mater.

“As a cofounder of the society, if I was not welcome at the university, how could we keep the society at the university?” Hannah Jones said.

In December, the society let UNC-Chapel Hill know it would be moving. It officially announced the move in February. But it didn’t reference the tenure controversy or in any way disparage the university or its journalism school on the way out. That was important to Hannah-Jones, who still feels appreciative of the enormous support she received from students, faculty and alumni during the tenure fight — especially the journalism school.

“We wanted to be very conscious of the fact that the journalism school didn’t have anything to do with what the university did,” Hannah-Jones said. “The journalism school was very great to the society.”

It wasn’t the university or its journalism school that had opposed her, she recognized. It wasn’t the students or the faculty. It was members of the board of trustees, who are political appointees of the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly.

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But in the end, there was just too much dissonance between the society and its goals and a university its founders saw bowing to big money and conservative political pressure. As the General Assembly is now making legislative moves to gut diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, end academic tenure, and politically scrutinize research, Hannah-Jones said leaving was clearly the right decision, albeit a bittersweet one.

“Before my tenure battle, that same year, I was inducted into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame,” Hannah-Jones said. “And then they told me they didn’t want me to ever teach at the university. It felt like the final disrespect. But I said then and you can see now, it was never just about me.”

“Sadly, the way that the legislature is coming after the university, attempting to dismantle tenure, it just makes clear why I could not have taken that position at the university,” Hannah-Jones said. “I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the faculty on that great University’s campus. The interference didn’t start with me and it’s not going to stop with me, clearly.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: [email protected]. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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