Politics & Government

In the end, Silent Sam’s fate and Carol Folt’s future were intertwined

Early in the morning of Monday, Aug. 20, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt thanked some staffers who had worked over the weekend before the start of the new semester. “It should be a busy and fun week ahead,” she said by email.

Fourteen hours later, she was texting with a vice chancellor, Joel Curran, as he watched a tense situation unfold on McCorkle Place, where the hotly contested Silent Sam Confederate statue stood, surrounded by tall banners.

The banners had been erected by protesters, who would pull the statue down later that evening.

“Are masked people at statue?” Folt texted at 9:01 p.m.

“V Small group of protesters and even smaller number of counter,” Curran responded.

At 9:21 p.m. Curran texted, “Pulling” and “Not budging.”

Seven minutes later, Folt would text another staffer: “Statue pulled down.”

The toppling of the monument was neither the beginning nor the end of the controversy. But it would trigger a whole new set of dilemmas for Folt, who had led the Chapel Hill campus since 2013. And it would ultimately lead to her stunning announcement last Monday that she was removing the statue’s base, as well as resigning her job — a declaration that blindsided almost everyone, including the UNC system Board of Governors, whose chairman called it a circumvention.

For months, even years, Folt had been the target of demonstrations by students who said her inaction on Silent Sam had created a racially hostile campus that was increasingly putting students at risk. Protesters had interrupted her speeches and gathered outside her office with drums and noisemakers.

The action by the crowd on the night of Aug. 20 was merely a last resort, student activists said, to accomplish what Folt had thus far failed to do.

On Aug. 21, she called the actions the night before unlawful and dangerous. But months earlier, Folt had also expressed her opinion that as long as the divisive statue stood in its place on campus, it would “drain energy and good will” from UNC and distract the campus from its goals. If it were her decision, she said a year before it fell, she would move it.

Folt said she wasn’t in control, though, because of a 2015 state law that prevented the relocation or alteration of “objects of remembrance.”

Eventually, she would decide that she did have the power, and the legal authority, to make the remnants of Silent Sam vanish from the campus. That’s what happened early Tuesday morning.

Closely watching and concerned

Email and text communications, released as part of public records requests by The News & Observer, showed how closely Folt was monitoring Silent Sam, and revealed her concerns about it. Earlier in the evening of Aug. 20, when the crowds gathered around the statue, she asked, “How bad? Are people safe? Can I help?”

In the immediate aftermath, hundreds of emails poured in, either bidding good riddance to Silent Sam or criticizing Folt and other UNC leaders for their handling of it. Some accused Folt of ordering police to stand down to allow the statue to fall. Angry taxpayers said the university was erasing its history, and some called for Folt’s dismissal.

One alumnus said he had taken his UNC diploma off his wall.

“Madame Chancellor, your ambiguity and lack of leadership on this issue was rewarded when the mob made the decision for you.,” wrote the 1972 alum, who identified himself as Charles Houseworth. “You are now off the hook. But that’s not leadership. It’s impotence.”

Aleta McClenney, who said she was the mother of two black students, wrote that she was appalled that UNC leaders’ statements focused on the protesters’ unlawful act, rather than the veiled threat of Silent Sam itself.

“UNC cannot be a healthy and diverse community with such utterly ineffective leadership,” McClenney wrote. “Your failure to handle this situation appropriately a year ago has led directly to where we are now.”

Others were sympathetic to Folt’s political dilemma, but pleaded that the statue not be returned to its spot.

“I know you all have tough jobs and there are some tough issues here, but you can’t put that statue back up,” wrote classics professor Jim O’Hara. “This campus would explode.”

Pro-Confederate groups started to come to campus with wreaths and flags to hold vigils at the site, which prompted large counter-protests by students and community members. And that led to an ever-growing police presence, followed by criticism about aggressive police tactics, including officers using pepper spray and tackling student protesters to the ground.

UNC had already spent $390,000 on security around Silent Sam the previous year, but now the campus was tapping police agencies from other campuses, surrounding towns and counties, including a special Greensboro police unit trained in crowd control.

A 1996 graduate, Ethan Clauset, sent an email to Folt, showing her a threatening message he’d seen on a social media page connected to ACTBAC, an Alamance County neo-Confederate group that had held gatherings at the Silent Sam site. The message, following the toppling, said, “We missed our chance to stand for our state and our country and carpet the lawn with the bodies of these bastards.”

Clauset asked Folt: “Please stand up for the students. They need your support.”

‘Things got even worse’

It was clear that the fall of Silent Sam only exacerbated an already tense situation, Folt said in an interview on Tuesday.

“Once the statue was toppled, things even got worse,” she said. “I mean, I was just thinking about safety all the time.”

Police and university staffers monitored social media to get a handle on what kinds of demonstrations were coming.

There were political considerations, too, as emotions ran high.

Within a couple days after the toppling, Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC system Board of Governors, ordered a review of police actions on the campus. “It’s the absolutely only way we can put to rest the ‘stand down’ conspiracy,” Smith wrote in an email to UNC President Margaret Spellings.

Spellings told Smith she was concerned about police morale “as we head into a challenging weekend” of more protests.

On Aug. 23, Smith emailed the Board of Governors with an emphatic statement. “It’s my intention to bring a vote to this governing body that will demand the statue be put back in place in a defined time line,” he wrote. “I ask for your support and I’m happy to discuss my position on this. These actions are not who we are in this great state nor does it represent how we should be perceived in the national spot light.”

In an email to Folt, Spellings said she thought there would be more of a process, and expressed her frustration with an expletive.

By the end of August, Smith and the board would change course, sending the issue back to the Chapel Hill campus leadership, charging them to come up with a “lawful and lasting” plan for the statue’s “disposition and preservation.”

That day, Folt told a group of gathered reporters that all possibilities would be considered.

“We will look at all options, including one that features a location on campus to display the monument in a place of prominence, honor visibility, availability and access, where we can ensure public safety, ensure the monument’s preservation and place in the history of UNC and the nation,” she said, as reported in The News & Observer.

Folt later wrote to the campus to say the statue didn’t belong at the front door of a welcoming university, and she and the trustees would set about finding an alternative location on campus. Deliberations were held behind closed doors, with a small group of trustees, who sought the advice of a panel of security experts. That group said the statue couldn’t be placed outside safely and that erecting it inside would be an expensive proposition.

The security panel also suggested a UNC system mobile police force that would respond to protests — an idea that was met with scorn from student activists and others.

The overall recommendation, presented in early December, was dead almost as soon as it was announced.

In a power point presentation, Folt said the campus could build a $5.3 million new building that would serve as a university history center, including housing Silent Sam and presenting its full historic context — presumably including a racist speech that was given on the day of its dedication more than 100 years ago. The building would be located at the edge of campus.

Everyone, it seemed, panned the idea.

That night, a large crowd of protesters marched to the doors of Folt’s office at the South Building, where they shouted: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win!”

Coming to a decision

Folt wasn’t getting much support while she was trying to “thread the needle,” as one faculty member put it. In November, 11 UNC system chancellors were awarded bonuses or raises, with the largest one going to her counterpart at N.C. State University, Randy Woodson.

Folt didn’t get one, and Spellings explained the raise would be considered in March at the time of Folt’s longer range evaluation.

At a Faculty Council meeting on Dec. 7, Folt was directly confronted by a student who had previously been presented with a Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship award. As seen in videos posted in social media, the student approached Folt in front of the gathered faculty and said, “You are a disgrace!”

A group of graduate students, meanwhile, had organized a grade strike, threatening to withhold undergraduates’ grades for the fall semester because of the history center proposal. The protest against Silent Sam was heading toward a full-blown academic crisis for the university.

On Dec. 14, the Board of Governors rejected the proposal for the $5.3 million history center, with Smith suggesting the cost was too high. There was no public debate by the board, which met for several hours behind closed doors.

The board wanted a new process and a new proposal, with five of its members appointed to a small committee that was to work with Folt and her trustees on fresh ideas.

Over the holiday break, Folt said she had time to get away with her family and think — “to have a little bit of space.”

Considering the dire warnings in the security panel report, together with new analysis from legal advisers, Folt came to a conclusion, she said. And once back from vacation, the campus received more threats.

“It was clear that it was going to continue.,” she said. “My police sent me another letter saying that things were very fragile. And so I knew at that moment I had to take the action and I needed to do it quickly. So yes, I think it took some time to get there with reflection, and because I had time to do it without worrying about the safety of the campus at the same moment.”

A few days before her announcement, she went to see Smith and told him what she was considering.

“We had a very cordial conversation about those issues,” she said. “This decision was my decision, though. I didn’t ask people’s permission.”

Smith said he encouraged Folt to discuss the plan with her trustee board. “It was my understanding, and others’ as well, that this would be a conversation in the light of day,” he said.

Stunning news for the board

Smith said he got a phone call on Monday that actions were under way. He called an emergency meeting for the Board of Governors, so the board members wouldn’t “wake up to a headline” that the statue’s pedestal was gone.

About an hour and 20 minutes into the emergency meeting, Folt put out a public statement saying she had authorized the removal of Silent Sam’s base and bronze tablets. Board members became aware of it while they were in the meeting.

Smith said the news was stunning. “Quite frankly, this was a tremendous amount of disrespect to the governing board who have worked tirelessly with them,” he said.

Folt said in an interview that her action to remove the Silent Sam base will help the board.

“I actually think by doing what I did I made their process smoother for them, because what I’m trying to do is get my campus safe,” she said.

Haywood Cochrane, who leads the campus trustee board, said he was surprised as well, but supported Folt’s decision.

“This wasn’t done just on a whim,” he said. “She’s been working on it. She would not have done it had she not had the legal authority to do so.”

Cochrane said he had watched the issue weigh on her. “Carol is a very principled person, highly principled,” he said. “By law she is responsible for the safety of this campus. So if she didn’t do something like she did, and somebody got killed in a protest, I don’t know how she’d recover from that.”

She also knew her decision could have repercussions for her, Cochrane added.

“Bless her heart, she knew she was at risk if she did it. She did it.”

Marty Kotis, a Board of Governors member from Greensboro, said he was sympathetic to Folt, who took a lot of punches along the way. The Silent Sam issue had to have taken its toll, he said.

“There’s a fine line between taking attacks and hearing people and being in a role where you’re the leader of the university,” he said. “You can’t just let people walk all over you.”

The day after her surprise announcement, the Board of Governors acted to make Folt’s resignation the end of January, instead of the end of the semester, as she had planned.

Folt kept going. That night, she attended the men’s basketball game against Notre Dame, and tweeted that she would always be proud to be a Tar Heel.

On Friday, she tweeted a thank you to a women in science group that had invited her to speak.

When asked how she dealt with the stress of Silent Sam, she said, “I sure have done a lot of walking.”

“I’m pretty steady,” she added. “You know, I wake up on the sunny side every single day.”

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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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