Opinion: UNC goes fishing, hook, line and stinker – John McGowan

UNC-Chapel Hill police and Orange County Sheriff’s deputies protect “Silent Sam” at UNC- Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 during a large protest.
UNC-Chapel Hill police and Orange County Sheriff’s deputies protect “Silent Sam” at UNC- Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 during a large protest. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Spying on the students. The disheartening actions of Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration at UNC-Chapel Hill just keep coming.

Last Friday, the university community learned that an undercover policeman spied on the students who participated in an eight-day vigil to protest the continued presence of Silent Sam, UNC’s Confederate monument. Claiming to be an auto mechanic named Victor, sympathetic to their cause, the undercover policeman from UNC’s Department of Public Safety, chatted up those at the vigil.

Does the university now have dossiers on students that contain information gathered under false pretenses? What exactly was the spy fishing for? What threat did the administration imagine these protestors – conspicuously non-violent throughout their vigil – posed?

The student vigil at the Confederate statue lasted from August 22-31, at which point the administration intervened and insisted that it come to an end. The vigil itself, the two mass rallies that took place during its eight days, and its dismantling (which the students did not contest) never disrupted normal operations at UNC and, apart from two arrests for very minor infractions the night of August 22, never involved any illegal or violent behavior.

At least two uniformed police officers were on site at every moment during the vigil. Their presence (in my view) was completely appropriate. Maybe even having a plainclothes policeman on the scene can be justified. But to infiltrate the student group gathered around the statue? Those are J. Edgar Hoover tactics.

These are our students! The university’s educational mission is predicated on the free and open exchange of ideas. When there are disagreements or even more serious conflicts on campus, we address them by talking to our fellow community members with whom we disagree. If the matter at hand is too delicate, that conversation may have to take place in private. Ideally, however – and in 90 percent of the cases in actuality – the dialogue is public, starting with frank discussions in our classrooms and spilling over from there into the other spaces our campus provides for open inquiry and spirited debate.

Yet no one in the administration ever approached the student protestors and asked for an opportunity to talk with them about their opinions or goals. The only meeting of administration personnel, including the chancellor, with the student protestors was a belated gathering on September 23, held in response to threats the students had received. The students were told at this meeting that “we are not here to discuss Silent Sam, but only your safety.”

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Where does the fear, the suspicion, that would motivate sending a spy to infiltrate the students camping out around the statue come from? Why should they be treated as potentially dangerous criminals instead as participants in the general conversation that is at the heart of education? These are our students, whom we work with every day, trying to give them the knowledge and skills they need to grow and prosper.

Is this the message we want to send to prospective and current students: you attend a university that instead of talking with you will accord itself the right to spy on you?

If Chancellor Folt did not authorize this over-the-top response to a student protest, then the person who did so should be fired.

If the chancellor herself authorized this undercover operation, she owes the campus community an explanation – and an apology. What was the administration aiming to accomplish and how has it used the information collected? The apology is for spying on students, a practice that only the most extreme circumstances could ever justify.

If neither an explanation nor an apology is forthcoming, the disintegration of our educational community, based on transparency and open dialogue, will continue apace.

John McGowan is the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill.