Politics & Government

‘Back to the drawing board’ — UNC board rejects latest Silent Sam plan. New panel launched.

Opponents of Silent Sam protest before UNC Board of Governors meeting

Opponents of Silent Sam gathered outside the Center for School Leadership Development at UNC before the Board of Governors meeting Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.
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Opponents of Silent Sam gathered outside the Center for School Leadership Development at UNC before the Board of Governors meeting Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

The UNC system Board of Governors rejected a recommendation Friday that UNC-Chapel Hill build a $5.3 million history center to house the disputed Silent Sam statue.

Instead, a committee has been formed to come up with a new proposal for the Confederate monument by March 15. Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said the costly plan for the center was “pretty tough for a lot of us to swallow.”

He also said the UNC board did not want to rush the decision.

“We’re going to go back to the drawing board in a team-like approach and try to get it right, working together in a very healthy process,” he said. “The goal, again, is simply to do the right thing.”

Smith named a committee of five Board of Governors members to work with UNC-Chapel Hill officials on a new plan. The members appointed to the group are Darrell Allison, Jim Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho.

Speaking later in a teleconference with reporters, UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt said she appreciated having more time now to come up with another relocation plan. She conceded that the recommendation she and the campus trustees put forth earlier this month for the new history center “hasn’t satisfied anyone, and we recognize that.”

Folt said the work ahead by the new committee will include fully exploring off-campus options for the statue, which had been the strong preference of her administration and the campus Board of Trustees. She cited as an example the N.C. Museum of History, which had been mentioned in the initial recommendation as a possibility.

“The decisions that will be made about this statue will have lasting ramifications for the university and the state,” Folt said. “The people of our university work every day to serve for the betterment of this state, and we owe it to them to get it right. Clearly it won’t be easy, but we will be continuing to work as hard as we can so that our community and our state can thrive.”

Smith said moving the statue off campus would require a change in a 2015 state law that prevents historic monuments from being moved in most cases. It will be up to the committee as to whether that’s a path they want to pursue, he said.

“If that’s so, they’ll make a decision whether to engage with lawmakers in Raleigh and have the conversation and see if they can get traction on that,” Smith said.

The UNC Board of Governors did not approve a Board of Trustees plan for a $5.3 million building to house Silent Sam. They instead voted on Friday to task the BOT and select BOG members with creating a new plan by March 15, 2019.

The board’s three-hour, closed-door session Friday outlasted the dozens of protesters who gathered in the Friday Center parking lot in a steady, cold rain.

Citing personnel and attorney-client privilege exceptions in the state’s open meetings law, the board held its talks about Silent Sam entirely behind closed doors. The board also considered two high-profile hires, as well as discussions about pending lawsuits, according to a motion for the closed session. The vote on the new committee and March 15 deadline occurred with no public debate.

The board also voted to have its governance committee review policies on student, faculty and staff conduct and propose changes “that set clear expectations” and provide for sanctions, “including suspension, termination and expulsion” for those who engage in conduct that impacts safety.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we’ve got a safe campus,” said Marty Kotis, a board member from Greensboro. “It’s hard to do that when you’ve got people throwing frozen water bottles or cans of food at police officers or at other visitors to campus, or hitting innocent individuals. And we’ve got to rein back in that violence. We cannot have a campus where we’ve got a big cage match out there.”

UNC President Margaret Spellings, at her last Board of Governors meeting before she steps down early next year, said she and Smith met for two hours Thursday with dozens of faculty, staff and students on the Chapel Hill campus about their concerns regarding Silent Sam. She called the conversation “deeply productive and thoughtful.”

Smith said he learned a lot from students who discussed their anxiety about having Silent Sam anywhere on campus. “When you hear the students speak about their fear, safety and concern, it’s pretty real,” he said.

About 100 students, UNC faculty members and others opposed to the statue set up in front of the UNC Center for School Leadership Development on Friday morning. One person was arrested as police moved people from the front of the building.

Protesters demonstrate outside the Board of Governors meeting against a proposed plan to build a $5.3 million center to house Silent Sam on Friday morning, Dec. 14, 2018. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Carrboro resident Margaret Herring said she has been protesting Silent Sam for more than a year.

“I think it’s great,” Herring said of the protest. “I love that the black faculty and sports figures have come out against it.”

Leaders from the Chapel Hill campus faced intense opposition to their proposal to create a $5.3 million history center on campus to house the statue and provide its full historical context. Critics called it a shrine to the Confederate monument and said it would present a continuing safety risk.

William Sturkey, a UNC professor of history, said the UNC Board of Governors has so far viewed Silent Sam only as a political issue.

“They’re costing us a great deal of money, they are helping to poison the campus climate and they’re damaging our reputation by limiting the potential outcomes of the decision,” he said in an interview, adding, “the university should be given a clear path to determine what’s best for the university.”

The monument, which was toppled from a campus pedestal by protesters in August, has been the source of conflict and debate for years. But in the current semester, the university has been consumed by it. The issue now has the university in the midst of a strike, with graduate student teaching assistants threatening to withhold undergraduate grades at the end of the semester.

UNC Faculty Chairwoman Leslie Parise wrote to faculty and graduate students, saying that while many agree with the aims of the grade withholding strike, there is concern that it “will do much more harm than good in helping us reach this goal.”

Smith said he hoped the grade strike would not materialize. “It’s our hope we don’t get there,” he said, adding, “We can’t work under threats and intimidation.”

He said the board is trying to forge the best path forward, but there’s not one that will “check all the dynamics” and nothing will make everyone happy.

Parise wrote that at the Thursday meeting with Smith and Spellings, Smith “offered a platform for dialogue” with the campus, including students. “I am hopeful that this will lead to more constructive dialogue.”

Graduate student Jerry Wilson, who has said he will wear a noose around his neck until the Board of Trustees rescinds their plan to house Silent Sam in a new building on campus, argues with law enforcement about their approach to protesters on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Jerry Wilson, a UNC graduate student in the School of Education, protested Friday while wearing a white rope noose with its ends wrapped in Carolina blue tape.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I don’t have high hopes for what’s going on in this building,” he said. “No matter what they say or do, we have each other and we will continue to have each other.”

From left, UNC President Margaret Spellings, Board of Governors member Robert Rucho and Chairman Harry L. Smith, Jr. get ready start a UNC Board of Governors meeting on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018 at the UNC Center for Leadership Development at UNC-Chapel Hill. As a decision about the Silent Sam Confederate monument looms, UNC-Chapel Hill leaders face intense opposition to their proposal to create a $5.3 million history center on campus to house the statue. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobserver.com

About 30 protesters huddled in the rain into Friday afternoon, sharing umbrellas and shaking pools of rain off their coats. They shouted “Shame!” as individuals and small groups of people trickled out of the building. The protesters asked some why they couldn’t hold a public meeting to talk about the statue.

The few people who acknowledged the protesters said they didn’t have any information to share. Finally, after learning the governors would be meeting for another hour in closed session, they chose to pack up and leave, noting that an opportunity to respond to the board’s decision would come Sunday.

A protest already is planned in support of graduates attending the university’s winter commencement in the Smith Center on Sunday. A separate, neo-Confederate gathering is scheduled to begin at noon at the Silent Sam base.

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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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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.