BOG Kicks Back at Silent Sam Proposal, Orders More Study


It’s “back to the drawing board” on an issue that has polarized the University’s constituents like few others, board Chair Harry Smith said (File photo)

The UNC System Board of Governors on Friday soundly rejected the University’s proposal to place its Confederate monument in a new building on South Campus, citing financial and security concerns.

But for a single vote, the BOG was unanimous: It will not support spending $5.3 million on the project. Its members’ thoughts on security were not discussed publicly. The board set up a five-member task force of its members to work with the Board of Trustees, the chancellor and top administrative staff to come up with another plan for Silent Sam by March 15.

It’s “back to the drawing board” on an issue that has polarized the University’s constituents like few others, board Chair Harry Smith said after a meeting dominated by a closed-door discussion of more than three hours.

The UNC trustees agreed two weeks ago to a proposal developed by the administration to move the monument to a new building on the southern edge of the campus that also would house a center for exhibits and education on the University’s history. Chancellor Carol L. Folt and several of the trustees made it clear that their preference would be to not have the controversial statue on the campus but that they were convinced state law prohibits that.

Following the BOG’s closed session, the board voted perfunctorily with no public discussion. A group of people who oppose keeping the statue on the campus could be heard chanting outside earlier in the day but were gone by the time of the vote. Protesters were not allowed inside the building. A heavy police presence at Friday’s meeting — which included police from at least four other campuses — thinned out after the protesters left.

Folt released a statement after the decision that emphasized the University’s intent to continue to pursue off-campus solutions: “We have a responsibility to make wonderful things happen on our campus — to enrich the life and prosperity, the health and well-being of the people of our state. But even more so, to be a place where the students, the staff and faculty who power the University can thrive and feel safe.

“We are the only university in this state that has anything closely resembling this statue. Put here more than one hundred years ago, our community is carrying the burden of an artifact, given to us by a previous generation in a different time. The burden of the statue has been and still is disproportionately shouldered by African-Americans. No university today would even consider placing such an artifact on their campuses.

“As we work with the Board of Governors, our work will include more fully exploring off-campus options as put forward in the report.”

The board also addressed the issue of protests surrounding the statue, some of which have turned violent. The members approved a resolution calling for a review of policies on student, faculty and staff conduct that could lead to sanctions including “suspension, termination and expulsion” for those who threaten the safety of others.

Smith and the system’s outgoing president, Margaret Spellings, had met with a group of Carolina students opposed to the statue on Thursday. Smith said when addressing the media after Friday’s meeting: “When you hear the students speak about fear and safety and concern, it’s pretty real, so, end of the day I think hearing it firsthand — there’s so much sensationalism on this — but when you get to hear some students actually speak from their own hearts it will make you to draw pause.”

But Smith made it clear the majority of the board could not abide the cost of the proposal, for which no funds are yet available.

“At the end of the day, the $5.3 million I think was pretty tough for a lot of us to swallow,” Smith said. “The goal here is to simply get it right … to take a very measured and disciplined pathway.”

Smith added, “We’re not going to get into retaliatory decision making on this governing body” but will allow the task force to proceed.

Asked whether the board had attempted to engage state lawmakers over the issue of a law that prohibits removing or moving historical monuments, Smith reiterated that it’s in the task force’s hands now.

“To move the statue off the campus would require a general statute change, so the group will have to decide if that’s indeed a path that they want to go down. … If so they’ll make a decision whether to engage with lawmakers.”

BOG members Darrell Allison ’99 (JD), James Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Spangler Nelson and Robert Rucho were appointed to the task force. The lone no vote Friday came from Thomas Goolsby, who has through personally made videos vehemently opposed any solution to the issue other than returning Silent Sam to its original location in McCorkle Place just off Franklin Street.

According to the proposal, a new center would be built in the former Odum Village, a community of early 1960s buildings that housed students with families and which is in the process of being demolished to allow for redevelopment. Odum is about 1.5 miles from the statue’s original site in McCorkle Place — essentially on the opposite end of the campus.

The estimated cost was $5.3 million, plus $800,000 in annual operating funds, which would have included educational programming. As far as a plan to fund it, Folt told the UNC Faculty Council on Dec. 7: “We are going to ask the Legislature to cover the cost. If they don’t, that will have to come out of funds that are not funds that we get from students … they’ll have to be private funds that we have.”

The monument became a lightning rod for protests over racism that culminated in its forced removal by protesters on Aug. 20, the evening before the start of fall semester classes. It had become a recurring headache for campus police, who had guarded it 24/7 since August 2017 and who dealt with protests that sometimes turned violent. The monument, commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy, was erected in 1913 “in memory of all University students, living and dead, who served in the Confederacy.”

The police, among many entities that weighed in on the issue, recommended to the chancellor that the statue be housed in a single-purpose, free-standing building where it could be properly secured and where the public could both view it and be subject to control.

“We did look primarily at on-campus sites,” Folt said on Dec. 3. “We did look at some off-campus locations … we don’t own those sites. It is our preference to move to an off-campus location, but it is not possible within the current law.”

A state law enacted in 2015 prohibits removal of historic monuments; it stipulates that any monument removed temporarily must be replaced within 90 days.

On the campus, opposition to keeping Silent Sam has been overwhelming. Hundreds of faculty and students have signed letters; athletes began this week registering protest; on Friday, the Odum Institute — named, as is Odum Village, for the social scientist and vocal anti-racism activist Howard Odum — said the statue was an affront to his legacy.

As final exams were starting, dozens of teaching assistants and other instructors at Carolina threatened to withhold final grades until the trustees rescinded the Odum Village proposal and met with some of the protesters. According to The News & Observer on Dec. 18, all grades had been turned in, though the instructors said they were prepared to strike in the spring semester if the monument is brought back to campus.

Provost Robert Blouin and Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, had met with some of those instructors. In a letter requesting the meeting, later posted to social media, Blouin and Guskiewicz warned that such an action would violate the University’s instructional responsibilities and that withholding grades could jeopardize college grants, job opportunities and military commitments. The letter said some parents and students had complained that students were being asked to get involved in the protest.

“Such actions have been interpreted as coercion and an exploitation of the teacher-student relationship and in fact are a violation of students first amendment rights as well as federal law,” the letter read.

Since the statue was pulled down in August, social media has been filled with comments from people across North Carolina who decidedly did not agree that the statue should have come down.

The Chronicle for Higher Education at one point characterized Folt’s dilemma: “On a state-university campus that largely wants to purge itself of the statue, in a state whose residents don’t, Folt is in a bind.”


Timeline: Silent Sam and Related Issues

Calls for removal of the statue — and rallies for its support — have occurred periodically for decades. 

1908 Trustees approve erection of a monument by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in memory of UNC students who joined the Civil War effort.   1913 Dedication of what was then called the Soldiers’ monument includes a speech by Confederate veteran, trustee and industrialist Julian S. Carr (class of 1866) that includes an account of having “horse-whipped a negro wench” near the site, because “she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”  1954 Apparently first use of the name Silent Sam, in The Daily Tar Heel, due to the fact the soldier carried no ammunition.  1965 A letter appears in The DTH that asks whether the statue is a racist symbol that should be removed.  1968 Graffiti appears on Silent Sam at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  1971 and again in 1973, UNC’s Black Student Movement holds protests at the statue after the deaths of black men killed by a motorcycle gang and by police.  1992 Silent Sam is the site chosen for Chancellor Paul Hardin and others to speak to students about the controversial beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police and the issue of whether UNC should erect a freestanding Black Cultural Center.  2000 February: Gerald Horne, then director of UNC’s Black Cultural Center, writes a newspaper column in which he likens the statue to a Confederate battle flag and says it was hypocrisy and slavery denial for UNC to leave it standing. 2009 While doing research in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library, Adam Domby, then a graduate student in history, finds Carr’s speech from the 1913 dedication. He shows it to other historians; none had seen it before.  2011 JanuaryDomby writes a letter to The Daily Tar Heel with excerpts of Carr’s speech, bringing Carr’s words to public attention. September: Members of the Real Silent Sam Coalition hold a protest at the statue, calling it offensive and suggesting UNC erect a reinterpretation plaque to explain it.  2015 January: Students lead a large, angry rally around Silent Sam, demand the renaming of Saunders Hall for author and activist Zora Neale Hurston. April: UNC trustees hold a special meeting to hear comments on the name-change issue. May: Trustees vote 10-3 to change Saunders to Carolina Hall, approve a 16-year moratorium on other renamings and order “curating” of UNC’s racial history. July: Vandals deface Silent Sam, painting “KKK” and “murderer.” N.C. General Assembly enacts a law prohibiting removal of any publicly sited “monument of remembrance.” September: Chancellor Carol L. Folt announces a task force to carry out the trustees’ directives.  November: Students of color speak out at a large rally outside South Building in the aftermath of racial unrest at the University of Missouri; a week later, a town hall meeting fills Memorial Hall, where students present a long list of demands.  2016 January: Chancellor Folt meets with leaders of the movement, who amplify demands; later she reports to the campus on required racial sensitivity training for administrators and a dedicated gathering place for black students, and she promises results of a survey on diversity.  November: Carolina Hall lobby display is unveiled.  2017 August: UNC Police erect two concentric circles of steel barricades around Silent Sam in anticipation of a protest rally that evening, amid talk that the statue might be taken down. Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) tells UNC officials they can take it down in the event of an imminent threat to public safety and security. University and UNC System attorneys decide not to challenge the law.  November: Trustees hold a listening session on Silent Sam — 28 people speak, two of whom support keeping the statue. Folt says: “I’d like to reiterate that, if I had the authority, in the interest of public safety, I would remove the monument to a safer location on our campus, where we could preserve, protect and teach from it. What I heard yesterday reinforced that belief.” A campus police officer goes undercover at the statue to engage both sides in conversation.  2018 May: Graduate student Maya Little throws red ink and what she says was her own blood on Silent Sam in full view of the police assigned to protect it and is arrested.  July: UNC reports it spent about $390,000 to provide police security for Silent Sam, July 2017 through June 2018.  Aug. 20: A Franklin Street protest is a diversion for an organized offensive on the statue, and protesters pull it off its pedestal, igniting a response marked by jubilation and by angry street confrontations.  Aug. 25: A group of Confederate monument supporters clashes just off Franklin Street with those supporting removal.  Aug. 28: Board of Governors passes a resolution directing Folt and the trustees to come up with a “lawful and lasting” plan to preserve the monument with attention to safety, and it sets a Nov. 15 deadline.  Aug. 31: As of this date, a total of 17 people had been arrested related to three protest events; of those, 16 were not affiliated with the University. DecemberUNC announces it will ask for the Board of Governors’ approval to build a $5.3 million Center for History and Education, where Silent Sam would be on display indoors. In mid-month, the Board of Governors rejected that proposal and set up a five-member task force of its members to work with trustees, the chancellor and UNC’s top administrative staff to come up with another plan for Silent Sam by March 15.

Share via: