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UNC board tells Chancellor Folt to leave her job in 2 weeks — earlier than expected

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt will leave her post in two weeks — months earlier than the timeline she suggested when she announced her resignation Monday.

In a closed meeting Tuesday afternoon, the UNC Board of Governors accepted Folt’s resignation, giving her until Jan. 31 to leave her job. She had planned to stay through graduation in the spring.

“We feel strongly that it’s probably in the best interest to go ahead and allow a change in leadership so we can move to a healing process,” the board’s chairman, Harry Smith, told reporters after the brief meeting. “Our focus is and always will be what’s in the best interest of the institution, and we felt strongly it was time to go ahead and make a change and allow the institution to move forward. So that’s why we compressed the timeline.”

The board’s action came a day after Folt issued the bombshell announcement that she would resign and remove the base of the controversial Silent Sam Confederate statue. Shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday, the pedestal, with its accompanying bronze tablets, was lifted by heavy equipment and hauled away from campus.

On Monday, Smith had criticized Folt’s announcement, which was distributed publicly while the board met in closed session. He said it “undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity.”

Cutting Folt’s tenure short was not punitive, he insisted on Tuesday. But, he added, “It’s a bit stunning, based on how this has gone, that UNC-Chapel Hill felt they needed to take this draconian action. ... When you start scheduling cranes at night, and key and critical stakeholders aren’t involved, it’s just unfortunate.”

He said the UNC system’s incoming interim president, Dr. Bill Roper, was already having conversations to quickly name an interim chancellor to fill Folt’s position on the Chapel Hill campus.

In a statement after the board’s action, Folt said she was disappointed but that she “truly loved” her nearly six years at UNC.

“Working with our students, faculty and staff has inspired me every day,” she said. “It is their passion and dedication, and the generosity of our alumni and community, that drive this great University. I believe that Carolina’s next chancellor will be extremely fortunate, and I will always be proud to be a Tar Heel.”

Earlier Tuesday, Folt said it just felt right to leave this year, aside from the heated debate about Silent Sam.

“I was making these decisions somewhat separately,” Folt said. “This really was a decision I was making about my next step and the proper timing of that for the university.”

She said had not wanted her job status to be part of her decision-making about the monument. “That’s not how I’ve thought about it,” she said. “I try to do the right thing regardless of that effect on my job situation. And it may be hard to believe, but that’s absolutely how I operate.”

Regarding the pedestal, she said it posed a continuing and growing threat on campus. A report from a panel of security experts late last year convinced her and her legal counselors, she said.

“I was in a position where I feel that I had to take action, that was legal,” Folt said. “I feel like I’ve been able to stay within that legal framework all along.”

A 2015 state law prevents moving or altering “objects of remembrance” except in certain narrow circumstances, including situations where a monument itself poses a safety hazard, has to be relocated for its preservation or must be moved for necessary construction projects.

Asked Tuesday whether she might have been fired if she had not resigned, Folt declined to speculate. She also said that she hoped she would remain in her job until after graduation.

So did the university’s fundraising leaders. A statement from 10 prominent alumni and UNC supporters leading the university’s $4.25 billion donor campaign said the removal of the statue’s remnants was “necessary and right.”

“As we look to the future, the Board of Governors must act wisely and show true leadership,” said a statement signed by the group, which included former and current trustees. “It must leave Chancellor Folt in place through the end of the academic year, and it must seek out new leaders for the university who will continue to place principles over politics.”

Their plea came just as the board was voting to end her tenure in weeks, not months.

On Tuesday night, about 90 people gathered in Chapel Hill’s Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street to eat pizza, dance and celebrate the removal of the Silent Sam pedestal. The crowd included many people who had attended protest after protest since August.

Dwayne Dixon, a university lecturer who earlier faced charges related to the protests, was among those to address the crowd. He encouraged others to fight white supremacy.

“Our struggle, as we know, is not over,” he said. “What I fear is that once this flashpoint, this focal point has been demolished, the administration will think that they have dissipated our energies, that no longer is there a physical center that we can organize ourselves against. Because white supremacy is insidious like that. It flows everywhere.”

First-year student Cecilia Poston said she planned to find new ways to advance the anti-racist cause. She said watching Silent Sam fall the night before classes began felt monumental. “I got to really directly see what a group of activists coming together can actually do.”

Anna Richards, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter of the NAACP, also came out to celebrate.

“In some ways, I’m in awe at the students,” she said. “They put a lot at risk. ... It gives me hope about social justice movements in our country.”

Earlier Tuesday, Folt said she had tried to remain focused on the university’s big goals, its 30,000 students and a faculty that is producing record levels of research.

But her worries about safety on campus have been constant because of Silent Sam, she said.

The 105-year-old statue of a Confederate soldier known was pulled down by demonstrators last Aug. 20. Its nine-foot pedestal had stood on campus ever since, a magnet for repeated protests and counter-protests. It has been the site of large marches, occasional violence and police officers deploying pepper spray at crowds.

Folt said the removal of the statue’s base happened in the overnight hours when there would be fewer people around. That is the best practice and what others have done in cities across the nation, she said.

“It absolutely has to do with public safety,” she said.

The pedestal’s removal 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, a pro-Confederate monument group.

On Tuesday, the N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement saying its members were “disgusted by the extent to which Chancellor Folt and the University of North Carolina will go to break our state’s laws and ignore the will of the people. ... As the last act of a desperate woman on her way out, she has effectively erased the contribution and sacrifice of these brave [Confederate] veterans and the tribute paid to them by subsequent generations.”

Early Tuesday’s scene of a pedestal loaded onto a flatbed truck resembled that of the early morning of Aug. 21, when the toppled bronze Confederate soldier was carted off to an undisclosed location. The only difference was the weather — a bitter cold compared to the warmth of that stormy summer evening.

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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.
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