Investing in research, innovation and industry perspectives: UNC Hussman celebrates new faculty hires and promotions

By Grace Lamb-Atkinson

As UNC Hussman students face a changing world, the school is doubling down on its commitment to students and focus on innovation in its journalism, advertising and public relations education. School leadership announced a series of new hires this summer, with five scholars and professionals with a wide breadth of experience joining the faculty. The UNC Hussman faculty also promoted five of its own based on their teaching, research, service and productivity. Their enhanced positions dovetail with the goals of the new hires to make the school a more enriching experience for students. With these changes, the school makes it clear that it is focused on the future — at a time when journalism, public relations and advertising are more relevant to the public conversation than ever.

Three new faculty members are starting at UNC Hussman this month: Julie Dixon as a professor of the practice, Shannon McGregor as an advertising assistant professor and Erin Siegal McIntyre as a journalism assistant professor. Two additional new faculty are starting as assistant professors later in the academic year: Lee McGuigan and Eva Zhao. UNC Hussman has also promoted faculty members Valerie Fields, Rhonda Gibson, Heidi Hennink-Kaminski, Allison Lazard and Terence Oliver.

“All of these moves represent our commitment to investing in top faculty and the recognition of our school’s critical role in industry and research that will pay dividends for UNC Hussman students,” said Susan King, dean of the school. “We are grateful to our entire faculty for navigating through these unprecedented times with the utmost care for each other and for our students.”

New faculty members

The new faculty members showcase the breadth of expertise, industry connections and academic excellence that UNC Hussman offers students — and align with the school’s strategic focus as articulated in the strategic plan adopted by the faculty last year.

With a research program focused on social media and crisis communication, Xinyan (Eva) Zhao also joins the school at a particularly relevant time — and made the transition from Hong Kong to do so. As an assistant professor in public relations, Zhao’s teaching will focus on advertising and PR research methods and digital media technologies. Her work centers on social media and strategic communications — including crisis and risk communications — social networks and social influence. A methodologist, she is  interested in computational and quantitative methods to communication. UNC Hussman’s research reputation drew her to the school.

“I knew UNC Hussman and its reputation when I pursued my B.A. degree in journalism in Fudan University in 2005,” Zhao said. “The media and public opinion environment were much more liberal in China back in 2005 — opinion, freedom and democracy were valued and advocated by many journalism professors, students, and news reporters. To me as well as many young reporters, UNC Hussman represents the ideal journalism that a professional should practice.”

While obtaining her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, Zhao worked with Brooke Fisher Liu (‘06, Ph.D.), a Hussman graduate. As an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, Zhao continued to stay in contact with the school, getting to know its “great scholars in public relations and crisis communication,” including Lucinda Austin.

Zhao’s family is based in North Carolina, and she has flown between here and Hong Kong many times over the past several years. She came back to Raleigh earlier this year, in a journey that was “certainly a memorable one,” as the pandemic was beginning to worsen in the United States and her family anxiously awaited her arrival. With the help of Hussman’s Dina Sikora and UNC’s International Student and Scholar Services office, Zhao was in position to begin teaching this semester.

During this tumultuous time, Zhao aims to use her expertise to examine how to “solve a plethora of crises and risk challenges in the state, nation and globe.” This Fall, she will teach advertising/PR research and media ethics. Zhao is excited to teach students two central skills: “Applying research skills and tools to tackle real-word strategic communication problems in the global context; and practicing media and communication with a multicultural and ethical perspective embracing diversity and inclusion.”

Her advice to students facing this academic year? “ ‘On the darkest nights, the brightest stars shine.’ Stay driven, stay persistent, be the brightest stars.”

Julie “Jules” Dixon ’91 is bringing deep public relations experience and connections to the UNC Hussman faculty. Dixon, an NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame publicist and a senior communications strategist, joins the school as a professor of the practice. Dixon has more than 30 years of top-tier expertise in crisis communications, social media relations, sports marketing, integrated marketing, entertainment/celebrity public relations, corporate communications, internal communications, and diversity and inclusion recruitment. She was a top executive at Golin PR for 20 years, managing clients ranging from Toyota to McDonald’s to work on celebrity press junkets for Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake. But, Dixon says throughout her career, the one lasting thread that ran through everything she accomplished, was her "love of being a forever Tar Heel."


Dixon has always felt a “connective tissue to Chapel Hill,” and known that her ultimate goal was to return to campus. “There was never any question. The faculty is the best in the business, and the journalism school is the best in the country.” She always maintained deep ties with the school and returned frequently to lecture, and was nominated to the school’s Board of Advisers in 2019. She says that she feels such deep roots here because the Hussman faculty set her up for success in the broadcast, advertising and public relations industries as an undergraduate. Her goal now is to prepare the next generation of public relations professionals. That goal was solidified when Dixon returned to campus as the Barry Saunders Visiting Professional in November of 2019. Hussman students who attended her classes praised Dixon’s real-world lessons from the industry and were eager for more insights.

Dixon says that the changes that have swept through the country since that visit — including both COVID-19 and a nationwide reckoning over race —make her even more eager to pass her expertise on to students. “Our industry is always exciting,” she said. “But it’s changing now more than ever. As brands search for ways to navigate this world, manage their budgets and still convey authenticity and transparency, they will need young, skilled PR professionals.” Dixon’s varied background led to a deep interest in integrated marketing, and she wants her students to get a taste of the real-world experience before they enter that fast-changing field. “I’ll show them what it’s like to be in the boardroom with a massive corporation, and what’s it’s like to work at an agency or in-house at a company, or somewhere in between,” she said.

Her experience at the top tier of diversity recruitment and corporate work is of equal importance, Dixon says, particularly after the events of this summer. “As a woman of color, I feel a special responsibility in that space,” she said. “I worked in the industry during some very tough years, and now I have this amazing opportunity to help students on that path.” Having “walked their walk,” Dixon feels she can now be a resource for students, providing “trust, empathy and preparation for the outside world.”

Despite the unique challenges of the semester ahead, advertising assistant professor Shannon McGregor also believes that she is joining UNC Hussman at the perfect time. Her research focuses on the role of social media in political processes, with a focus on political communication, public opinion and gender. McGregor, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, comes to Chapel Hill from the University of Utah, where she was an assistant professor.

McGregor will also serve as a senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, which she describes as hosting a dream team of other faculty including UNC Hussman’s Daniel Kreiss and Deen Freelon. “UNC is my dream university,” McGregor said. “Hussman is an outstanding school, and just being able to be part of that was obviously a huge goal of mine when I started my career as a professor.”


This fall, McGregor’s teaching will highlight social and digital media’s effects on journalism and advertising, with an undergraduate market intelligence and digital analytics course and a graduate course on how networks can help us understand society and culture. McGregor says all those topics have become even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Being at home has brought these issues even more to the forefront. We’re seeing this unprecedented nationwide response against police brutality spread on social and digital media, because we’re all on it, and we’re all home. We see the intersection of presidential campaign ads with these tech firms because they have unprecedented power to control the speech on their platforms,” she said. “My research is at this intersection, and I’m lucky to be part of teaching at Hussman and UNC, which is at the center of it all.”

McGregor, a Floridian, grew up immersed in politics and journalism with a journalist father and political activist mother. She wants to encourage UNC Hussman students to immerse themselves in both worlds as well. “I try to make my teaching and research as public-facing as possible,” she said. “The more engaged we are as professors, the more we can be part of helping our students toward the careers they want.”

Erin Siegal McIntyre’s extensive journalism experience will also help prepare UNC Hussman students for the current media climate. McIntyre, a new assistant professor for journalism, is a veteran investigative journalist who has been based in Mexico for most of the last decade, reporting on issues along the U.S.-Mexico border. McIntyre has worked across print, radio and television platforms as a freelance reporter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Reuters, among many other publications. She also served as a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.


McIntyre’s focus is on building investigative skillsets, and her goal is to “inspire students to see why investigative reporting is so important and applicable no matter what kind of media they go into.”

“The whole role of a journalist is more important now than ever as we try to keep government accountable and be public watchdogs,” McIntyre said. “And that’s important whether you’re a fashion reporter or sports reporter — you need that investigative skillset to go deeper with stories and turn a more critical eye.”

She aims to help each student build that skillset by developing a “document-oriented mindset” and teaching practical journalism skills ranging from FOIA requests to source treatment. “I’m a huge proponent of project-based learning, getting out there and doing the work,” she said. “We’re going to be as experiential as possible even though we’re facing this pandemic.”

McIntyre plans to draw on her strong professional network to bring in speakers from across the media world. “I want students to feel empowered and know that, even though they’re young, they can get out there and accomplish big things,” she said. “UNC Hussman gives them a really solid foundation to do anything.”

Lee McGuigan will also join UNC Hussman's faculty later in the academic year. He will serve as assistant professor in digital advertising beginning in January. McGuigan, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, is currently a research fellow at the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell University. He is finishing a book at Cornell before coming to UNC Hussman. Zhao, who is coming from Hong Kong Baptist University, will be an assistant professor in public relations. 

Faculty promotions

Five UNC Hussman faculty members earned promotions this year. The promotions recognize exceptional service, teaching, research and leadership from faculty members. With the advancements, the school is signaling its commitment to both of its central disciplines and to bolstering the student experience. The promoted faculty have shown leadership in their various fields of public relations, health communication, journalism education, reporting and diversity education.

Public relations professional Valerie Fields was promoted from teaching associate professor to teaching professor. Fields, known as “V.K.” to many of her student and faculty fans, has worked in public relations for some of the world’s most well-known organizations including Walt Disney World Resort, McDonald’s Corporation Regional Headquarters and the Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities of North Carolina. As the founder of V.K. Fields & Co. PR PROS, an award-winning PR and copywriting agency in Raleigh, N.C., she has been an entrepreneur for more than 22 years. Fields, who has now reached the highest rank for a fixed term faculty member, continually wins top teaching ratings from students (don’t miss this story on one of Fields’ innovative virtual projects this spring).

James H. Shumaker Term Professor Rhonda Gibson will continue her career at UNC Hussman with a promotion to the rank of full professor. Gibson has been with UNC Hussman since 2001. She has been a leader in the school’s online pedagogy planning, helping to launch its well-respected online MA program.  She recently wrapped up service as director of what is now called the M.A. in Digital Communication. Her research focuses on exemplification practices in the news and media portrayals of LGBTQ+ individuals and issues. Her teaching areas include journalism writing and reporting, media ethics, sexual minorities and the media, and mass communication pedagogy. Her book "Same-Sex Marriage and Social Media: How Online Networks Accelerated the Marriage Equality Movement" was published by Routledge in 2018 and examines messaging strategies used by proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage to influence news media coverage of the issue as well as broader public opinion.

Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Heidi Hennink-Kaminski has also earned rank as a full professor, along with continuing to lead the graduate school’s faculty through a transformative time. Hennink-Kaminski became graduate dean when the school integrated its online program into its residential graduate MA program.  She has worked to update the school’s well-respected Ph.D. program to reflect deeper theoretical underpinnings while emphasizing flexibility.  Her research focuses on interdisciplinary health communication with an emphasis on the social marketing approach to promote healthy behaviors among individuals and communities. She has been with UNC Hussman since 2006, has mentored graduate and undergraduate students and has been a key part of the leadership team overseeing the development of UNC Hussman’s vision, mission and delivery of graduate education during a time of significant change. Hennink-Kaminski was also named the Hugh Morton Distinguished Professor this year. She is a past recipient of the school’s David Brinkley Teaching Excellence Award and the Edward Vick Prize for Innovation in Teaching.

Allison Lazard, whose influence has recently been felt both at UNC Hussman and the Carolina community at large, has been promoted to associate professor. She was also named the E. Reese Felts Jr. Distinguished Associate Professor for a two-year term. Her research focuses on how visual and interactive design influences message perception and engagement. She has made a number of theoretical and empirical contributions to interdisciplinary health communication, including for perceptions and impact of health campaigns and interactive interventions. Allison Lazard’s educational and professional experiences combine to give her a unique research agenda that contributes to a larger body of theoretical knowledge in advertising, visual communication, and health communication. She is a leader in cancer prevention and support research, and has contributed to multiple projects within the UNC-Chapel Hill and broader North Carolina communities. She is leading a health communications initiative focused around COVID-19 messaging, working with UNC Gillings and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Terence Oliver continues his leadership and mentorship of UNC Hussman students with a promotion to full professor. A pioneer in his field, Oliver has more than 30 years of experience in visual communication and developed the first collegiate motion graphics journalism courses in the United States at Ohio University and later at UNC-Chapel Hill. During his years in the advertising and media industry as a graphics producer and visual journalist, Oliver received multiple industry awards and served on two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. At UNC Hussman, Oliver has negotiated more than two dozen paid active-learning industry collaborations and mentored the award-winning Society for News Design student group. He has collaborated on nine grant-funded research projects at UNC-Chapel Hill. For three years Oliver also led the Chuck Stone Media Leaders summer program for diverse high school students.  Oliver was also named Walter Spearman Distinguished Professor this year. He is a past recipient of the E. Reese Felts Distinguished Term Professorship, the David Brinkley Teaching Excellence Award and the Edward Vick Prize for Innovation in Teaching.

“These promotions, all richly deserved, are a measure of the pipeline of faculty talent in the school,” said King. “We are committed to supporting our faculty across the school’s disciplines — which elevates all of us and provides the best experience and opportunities for our students.”