Politics & Government

After a whirlwind week in Chapel Hill, Silent Sam’s future is far from settled

With no trace of Silent Sam left on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, student activists held a victory party Tuesday night. But the future of the divisive Confederate soldier monument is still undecided.

Despite a dizzying chain of events this week — Chancellor Carol Folt ordering the statue’s base removed, announcing her resignation and then being forced out early by the UNC Board of Governors — there has been little talk of the process ahead for determining the ultimate fate of the monument.

On Tuesday, Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said the deadline for a new recommendation remains the same — March 15. But it is unclear just how a campus without a permanent leader will be involved.

Smith said the system board would adhere to the process that it had set out a month ago.

In December, the board rejected a proposal by Folt and the Chapel Hill trustees to construct a $5.3 million building at the edge of campus to house Silent Sam and educate the public about the statue’s full historic context. Instead, the Board of Governors voted to name a board committee to work with the chancellor and trustees to come up with a new plan.

“We worked very closely at that meeting to adopt the March time frame to continue to try to get this right,” Smith said, adding, “We are going to stay focused on doing what we were doing, which I think was absolutely the right path — it was proper process, proper governance, the right stakeholders involved.”

As far as working with campus leaders on the next steps, Smith said, “there’s no doubt there’s some strain.”

He said he would have preferred more discussion with Chapel Hill leaders before the action was taken to remove the statue’s base. “From my perspective, we never gave UNC a reason to do this,” he added.

The statue and its base will be preserved in a safe location “until their future is decided,” Folt said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

A member of the Board of Governors committee, Anna Nelson, said in an email that no meetings have been scheduled yet.

Haywood Cochrane, chairman of the campus trustee board, said the next step will come, but for the moment it’s not the highest priority.

“It’s still a shared process, regardless of where we are now,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The pedestal is down. It’s safe, it’s secure. ... We’re going to work with [the Board of Governors committee], and we have to work through them to determine the long-term status of Silent Sam.”

But Cochrane said, the campus now faces a leadership change, and the university system has a new president in Dr. Bill Roper, who just started the job after the departure of Margaret Spellings.

“We’ve got some fish to fry before March 15,” Cochrane said.

One outspoken member of the Board of Governors, former Republican state Sen. Thom Goolsby, posted a YouTube video Wednesday suggesting that a structure be built around Silent Sam to protect it and allow people to present their views on it. He suggested residents call legislators to weigh in.

“We will continue this fight until the rule of law is re-established in North Carolina,” he said in the video.

Faculty and student groups have almost universally called for the statue not to return to the campus. That would likely require a change in the 2015 state law aimed at preservation of “objects of remembrance.” Last year, bills that would allow the relocation of the monument were proposed by Democrats in the legislature but never adopted.

One idea explored by Folt and trustees last year was to move the statue to the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. That would require approval by the state historical commission and $2 million for the museum, according to a letter last year from Susi Hamilton, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural History.

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, frustrated that they weren’t more directly involved in last year’s proposal by Folt and the trustees, last week passed a resolution specifying that a special faculty committee be at the table for any future decisions. That group is expected to be appointed soon.

Last week, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin said campus officials had not been given any details on the process ahead with the five-member Board of Governors committee.

“The Board of Governors, at least for the time being, owns this process now,” Blouin said at the time, as reported in The News & Observer.

Cochrane said the recommendation given to the Board of Governors in December contains plenty of information that can help in the decision making. A panel of security consultants told UNC the campus would be “under siege” if Silent Sam were erected in an open outdoor location. But putting the statue indoors would require significant security expense, the report said.

“We’re going to follow the process, we’ve got great legal advice,” Cochrane said. “I don’t know where Sam’s going to wind up.”

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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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