Last Lecture: Loyalty, Courage, Leadership

(Photo: GAA/Cory Dinkel)

Susan King, former dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, discussed loyalty, courage and leadership in her Last Lecture to about 150 seniors outside the Morehead Planetarium in April.

“I’ve always felt that the students at UNC are a special brand of students,” said King, the John Thomas Kerr Distinguished Professor who served as the journalism school dean from 2012 to 2021. “My expectation for all of you is that you become leaders of North Carolina and the country.”

Sponsored by the GAA, the Last Lecture at UNC is held during Senior Week and involves selected faculty members or coaches sharing reflections from their life’s journey. The event became nationally recognized in 2007, when computer science professor Randy Pausch spoke at Carnegie Mellon. Pausch conceived the idea after learning his pancreatic cancer was terminal.

King, who this year taught two senior classes, commended the students for emerging from the pandemic with new values about community. “You have learned to respect those who are different from you,” she said. “You are not trying to make your world smaller or populated by people who think exactly like you. You are welcoming, challenging and curious about others.”

King said the students asked her to give the last lecture because she was the dean who invited Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA) to join the Hussman School as the Knight chair and because she stood with her until she won tenure from the Board of Trustees. After Hannah-Jones accepted UNC’s offer to join the faculty in 2021, the board initially didn’t vote on whether to give her tenure, causing campus protests and attracting national media attention. The board eventually voted to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones, but she rejected the offer and accepted a position at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“So I want to talk to you about two ideas that I teach in my leadership class — courage and loyalty,” King said. “Both are central to leadership, yet they can sometimes be in conflict.”

King said she invited Hannah-Jones — a former staff writer for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the newspaper’s 1619 Project, which reframes the country’s history by focusing on the consequences of slavery and Black Americans’ contributions — to join the journalism school faculty because she was “one of the most influential and important journalists of this generation” and because of her commitment to giving back.

King said it was not an act of courage to recognize Hannah-Jones’ talents nor an act of defiance to support tenure because Knight chairs had always been granted tenure. She said it made sense given Hannah-Jones’ background, an accomplished journalist, MacArthur Genius Award winner and a recipient of the University’s Distinguished Alumna Award. Hannah-Jones received the GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumna Award in 2017.

“But then powerful interests saw Nikole Hannah-Jones and what she stands for — fierce journalism, a focus on American history, its warts and all, and her honesty — as a threat,” King said. “Then it got tough. Then it took some courage. And then loyalty came into play.”

King said she deeply believes in UNC’s mission to educate North Carolinians regardless of financial status, race, identity, religion or political beliefs. (Photo: GAA/Cory Dinkel)

King said important people and interests within the state didn’t want Hannah-Jones to teach at UNC, forcing King to question her loyalties. She asked if her loyalty was to Hannah-Jones or to UNC’s intellectual community including the medical and health schools, arts and sciences, the business school, all of whom supported Hannah-Jones. “Was my loyalty to you students, who want to learn from diverse and challenging faculty members?” she added. “And was it to the alumni of the University, who expect that ideas, and not politics, will dominate University leaders’ decision making?”

King said her loyalty was and is with everyone. “My commitment is to the ideal of the University, one that confronts power and ignorance wherever it exists,” King said. “But that difficult moment for me two years ago was not about me. It was about this institution and its future and your future.”

King said she deeply believes in UNC’s mission to educate North Carolinians regardless of financial status, race, identity, religion or political beliefs.

She ended her lecture telling students she wishes they will demonstrate courage, saying their country and state needs them. King announced she’s leaving UNC at semester’s end to return to her family in New Jersey.

Laney Clodfelter, a biology major from Charlotte who attended the lecture, said she liked that King said you can leave a job if you don’t like it. “If medical school doesn’t work out or if I don’t end up liking it, there are a hundred other things I can do,” she said.

Esther Eikins, a political science and global studies major from Aurora, Colorado, said the Hannah-Jones situation was a critical moment in her Carolina experience. She commended King’s leadership and said “it’s important for students to confront UNC’s legacies to improve the University for future generations.”

— Laurie D. Willis ’86


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