UNC chancellor says Confederate monument Silent Sam must go - and so will she

Washington Post

The chancellor of North Carolina's flagship university said Monday that she had ordered the last remnants of a Confederate monument to be removed from campus to ensure student safety.

In the same message, she announced that she would step down at the end of the academic year.

It was a defining moment for the university and for its chancellor, Carol Folt.

The news immediately drew some students and activists to the monument's base Monday for a celebration - and angered the statewide panel that oversees North Carolina's public universities, which met in response and condemned the decision.

The Confederate statue known as Silent Sam has long been controversial at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where it stood for more than a century at a prominent campus entrance, with some honoring it as a memorial to student soldiers and others decrying it as a symbol of racism. But after a debate over a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly in 2017, Silent Sam became a far more volatile symbol.

At the beginning of the academic year, protesters tore the statue down. It was a dramatic moment celebrated by students and faculty members, vilified by many state leaders - and a lasting act that forced a decision about the future of Silent Sam.

Even after the statue of the young soldier was toppled, the base and commemorative plaque that remained on campus continued to draw protesters and debate over whether they symbolized heritage or hatred.

Last month, Folt and the university's trustees presented a plan to house the statue in a new building designed for that purpose at a less visible location, saying they would prefer not to have it on campus but were prohibited by state law from removing it.

The plan was immediately excoriated by students and others as an expensive shrine to white supremacy.

And it was rejected by the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors, which oversees the state's universities, because of concerns about public safety and the estimated cost: $5.3 million to erect a building to house the monument and an $800,000 budget to maintain it.

The board of governors directed Folt and several members of the panel to devise a new plan by March 15.

On Monday, Folt took a stand.

Despite their best efforts, she said, threats continued to grow around the remnants of the monument.

"As chancellor, the safety of the UNC-Chapel Hill community is my clear, unequivocal and non-negotiable responsibility," she wrote in a statement to the university. "The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community," and to the school's fundamental mission of providing a stable, productive place to learn.

Several leaders of the university's board of trustees praised Folt's decision and her tenure, and said she was acting properly to ensure security. Three board members - Vice Chairman Charles "Chuck" Duckett, Secretary Julia Grumbles and Lowry Caudill, a past chairman who is a member of the board - wrote that "nothing is more important than keeping our campus community and visitors as safe as possible. We are sincerely grateful to Chancellor Folt for her dedicated service to our great University and the State of North Carolina. When she arrived in July 2013, she brought remarkable energy and deep passion to countless initiatives that have made Carolina stronger and poised to inspire future generations of students, faculty, staff and alumni."

The board of trustees chairman, Haywood Cochrane, did not join the statement and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

The panel that oversees the state's public universities, the board of governors, did not know about the chancellor's decision until after the public announcement, board Chairman Harry Smith said in a written statement Monday evening.

"We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action," Smith said. "It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the Board's goal to operate with class and dignity.

"We strive to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are always involved and that we are always working in a healthy and professional manner."

The board's process and timeline for determining the future of the monument, set in December, remains unchanged, he said.

The board of governors will continue to work "with proper governance and oversight in a way that respects all constituencies and diverse views on this issue," Smith said. "The safety and security of the campus community and general public who visit the institution remains paramount."

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., wrote on social media, "You can't choose your history, but you can choose the history you honor.

"Silent Sam has been a vestige of hate and a source of animus on UNC's campus for far too long," Price said. "I commend @ChancellorFolt for her leadership in doing what's right for UNC & the Chapel Hill community."

Gina Balamucki, a law student at UNC and recipient of a bachelor's degree from the school in 2013, said she cried when she heard the news Monday evening. Protesters celebrated, honoring black student activists who had fought since the 1950s to have the monument removed, she said, and they plan to hold a dance party at the site Tuesday evening.

But their joy was tempered, she said, knowing the divide among the campus and the Republican-controlled state Legislature and the board of governors it appoints. The only administrator who had taken a strong stand against white supremacy had to then resign immediately, she said.

"They could appoint a chancellor tomorrow to replace her that would put the thing right back up."

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