Silent Sam pedestal removed after order from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, who is stepping down

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, in a surprise announcement late Monday afternoon, said that she will resign after graduation this spring.

Folt said in a statement she had ordered the removal of the pedestal that once held the Silent Sam Confederate monument on campus. Shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday, the base was lifted by heavy equipment onto a flatbed truck to be taken away from McCorkle Place on campus.

“As chancellor, the safety of the UNC-Chapel Hill community is my clear, unequivocal and non-negotiable responsibility,” she wrote. “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 our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment. No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe.”

Her announcement came while an emergency conference call meeting of the UNC Board of Governors was being held to discuss “personnel and legal matters.” The meeting was still under way when Folt’s message went out.

Following more than three hours behind closed doors, the board adjourned. Chairman Harry Smith issued a statement saying the board was not privy to Folt’s announcement before it was made public.

“We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action,” Smith’s statement 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.”

Folt has led the Chapel Hill campus since July of 2013, and there was no indication she was planning to leave.

Three trustees on the UNC campus board issued a statement supporting Folt’s decision to remove the monument’s base.

“The chancellor has ultimate authority over campus public safety, and we agree Chancellor Folt is acting properly to preserve campus security,” wrote Vice Chair Chuck Duckett, Secretary Julia Grumbles and the former chair, Lowry Caudill. “Nothing is more important than keeping our campus community and visitors as safe as possible.”

The trustees thanked Folt for her service and her “remarkable energy and deep passion” that made the university “stronger and poised to inspire future generations of students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

On campus Monday night, about two dozen joyful students and activists gathered at the pedestal for a brief celebration. They planned what they call a victory party for 8 p.m. Tuesday at Chapel Hill’s Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street.

Graduate student Lindsey Ayling said when she heard the news, she started crying because decades of anti-racist protests on the campus had finally paid off.

“Silent Sam only came down because a group of activists fought to remove this symbol,” Ayling said.

But she was critical that Folt, by delaying action until now, had left some in the community to face “brutality from police and from white supremacists.”

The monument’s removal overnight was watched by a small crowd and a heavy police presence. One man was arrested as he tried to interrupt the process, shouting that the workers were breaking the law.

UNC Police charged Gary Williamson, 39, with resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor, police spokesman Randy Young said by email Tuesday. Williamson also was issued a warning of trespass from McCorkle Place. Williamson is the founder of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC), a pro-Confederate monument group.

The scene overnight resembled that of the early morning of Aug. 21, when the toppled bronze Confederate soldier was hauled away. The only difference was the weather — a bitter cold compared to the warmth of that stormy summer evening.

Tumult since August

The chancellor has been at the center of the tumult over the toppling of the Confederate monument during a protest last August.

Before it fell at the hands of protesters, the statue’s presence was hurting the campus, Folt said, but she had made no effort to take it down. A 2015 state law prohibited the alteration or removal of objects of remembrance, except for a few narrow exceptions.

Folt and UNC President Margaret Spellings raised campus security concerns with Gov. Roy Cooper after the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Va. He then replied that the law’s exceptions gave the university the power to remove the statue.

But a majority of the Board of Governors fired back to Spellings and the former board chairman, saying the communication with the governor was wrong without involving the board.

Once Silent Sam was toppled, Folt made the statement that the statue belonged to history but “not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public university.” It had become a threat to safety and the daily mission of UNC, she said.

Eventually, the Board of Governors deferred to campus leaders, giving Folt and the trustee board the difficult assignment of finding a “lawful and lasting plan” for the statue’s disposition and preservation.

In early December, after weeks of quiet deliberation, Folt and the trustees recommended the creation of a $5.3 million history center, to be constructed at the edge of campus, to house the statue. The idea was to build a university history museum where the statue could be presented in its full context, including its beginnings during the Jim Crow era.

The proposal was universally panned, and the Board of Governors rejected it on Dec. 14. Instead, the board named a small committee of its members to come up with an alternative plan.

Last week, Folt did not attend a campus meeting of the Faculty Council, where the body voted on a faculty committee to advise on the issue. The chair of the faculty, Leslie Parise, characterized Folt’s task as trying to “thread a needle.”

“She is on our side on this,” Parise said at the time.

The honor of her life

Folt said in her message that it had been the honor of her life to lead the university, and she cited a string of recent accomplishments, including reaching the halfway point of the $2.25 billion fundraising campaign, devising a strategic plan and hitting a record in research funding.

When she arrived on campus after having served as interim president of Dartmouth College, Folt was faced with pulling the university out of an athletic and academic scandal involving 18 years of no-show classes that disproportionately benefited athletes. The university was placed on probation by its accrediting agency — a huge black eye for a prominent university — and later managed to escape big penalties by the NCAA by arguing the classes were legitimate under previous standards.

Once that scandal began to fade, pressure on Folt grew from student activists who said the Confederate statue created a racist and hostile environment on campus.

As the demonstrations continued following the monument’s fall, town and business leaders joined in the call for its permanent removal. Folt was also inundated with email from alumni, taxpayers and others who wanted the statue put back; some said she should be fired.

“There has been too much recent disruption due to the monument controversy,” Folt wrote in her statement Monday. “Carolina’s leadership needs to return its full attention to helping our University achieve its vision and to live its values.”

Some blamed Folt and other leaders for the situation.

Hampton Dellinger, an attorney who had threatened a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of students, tweeted: “Along with UNC’s entire leadership structure (campus and system), Carol Folt was wrong about ‘Silent Sam’ when it mattered. Her leadership test came in 2017, post-Charlottesville. And she failed. Miserably.”

Others handed praise to the chancellor for her decision.

“You can’t choose your history, but you can choose the history you honor,” tweeted U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill. “Silent Sam has been a vestige of hate and a source of animus on UNC’s campus for far too long. I commend for her leadership in doing what’s right for UNC & the Chapel Hill community.”

Early Tuesday, Cooper issued a statement, saying, “I appreciate the Chancellor’s actions to keep students and the public safe. North Carolina is welcoming to all, and our public university should reflect that.”

Safety and security

In the end, Folt said the interest of safety should preclude the monument from returning to campus.

“While I recognize that some may not agree with my decision to remove the base and tablets now, I am confident this is the right one for our community – one that will promote public safety, enable us to begin the healing process and renew our focus on our great mission,” her statement said.

The statement from Smith said the board would continue to work on “the best course of action for the future of the monument.”

“Moving forward, the Board will continue to work tirelessly and collaboratively with all relevant parties to determine the best way forward for UNC-Chapel Hill,” Smith’s statement said. “We will do so with proper governance and oversight in a way that respects all constituencies and diverse views on this issue. The safety and security of the campus community and general public who visit the institution remains paramount.”

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
Support my work with a digital subscription