With ‘Silent Sam’ gone from UNC-CH, chancellor to quickly follow

January 17, 2019

The UNC Board of Governors on Tuesday put Jan. 31 as the date of Carol Folt’s resignation as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, not following the school’s graduation in May as she wanted.

Folt announced her resignation on Monday while also authorizing the removal of what’s left of a controversial Confederate monument from the Chapel Hill campus.

Work crews then spent the night pulling up the granite base of the “Silent Sam” statue from its century-old location on McCorkle Place and loading it onto a flatbed truck for removal. The statue itself has been in storage since protesters pulled it down in August.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith was clearly displeased with Folt’s unilateral decision on the monument, saying Monday it “undermines and insults the board’s goal to operate with class and dignity.”

The board held a 15-minute closed-door session on Tuesday before voting to speed up the timing of her departure.

Afterward, Smith said the decision is best for the university but added that it wasn’t punitive.

“The Board of Governors will never operate in a retaliatory manner. I don’t think we’ve done that at all. It’s our goal to treat Chancellor Folt with grace and dignity and work with her in this,” he said. “We just felt strongly that, based on where we’re at here, in order to move the institution forward that we needed to make a change.”

Students said they backed Folt’s decision, and held a celebratory rally on campus Tuesday night, but weren’t surprised by the Board of Governors’ reaction.

“I think it makes sense that she probably wanted to take a stance as her last thing, but she probably had to resign afterward,” junior Alex Samano said.

Folt simply said she was “disappointed” by the Board of Governors’ decision before extolling the virtues of UNC-Chapel Hill in a four-sentence statement.

“Working with our students, faculty and staff has inspired me every day. It is their passion and dedication, and the generosity of our alumni and community that drive this great university. I believe that Carolina’s next chancellor will be extremely fortunate, and I will always be proud to be a Tar Heel,” she said.

Interim UNC President Dr. Bill Roper will name a new chancellor.

Although Folt has stated previously her desire to move Silent Sam off campus, saying it doesn’t reflect the ideals of UNC-Chapel Hill and distracts from the school’s educational mission, she insisted that her hands were tied by a state law that restricts the movement of such monuments.

On Tuesday, however, Folt said removing the remnants of the statue was legal because it posed an ongoing threat to public safety.

“I was in a position where I feel that I had to take action that was legal. I feel that I was able to stay within that legal framework all along,” she said during a conference call with reporters. “I’m sorry for the disruption to the campus – it’s not something that any of us want – but I do think you have to always try to do this in the best way that follows the legal path, and I think we found one.”

Public safety also was behind conducting the removal in the middle of the night, she said, noting less pedestrian traffic and a lower chance of creating a spectacle that would draw a crowd.

“It’s a bit stunning based on how this has gone, that UNC-Chapel Hill felt they needed to take this kind of draconian action,” Smith said. “When you start scheduling cranes at night and key and critical stakeholders aren’t involved, it’s just unfortunate.”

He said he was disturbed the Board of Governors was never consulted before Folt acted.

“From my perspective, we never gave UNC a reason to do this,” he said. “If this is the action that you wanted to do, then let’s talk about it. It was really unfortunate that we weren’t given an opportunity to work and do so in a healthy manner.”

Folt’s resignation, and the impending decision about where “Silent Sam” should go next are creating a bit of uneasiness, according to Professor William Sturkey.

“I think the citizens of North Carolina really deserve some sort of explanation as to how these sorts of decisions are being made without just meetings occurring in three-hour closed door sessions,” he said.

Sturkey said he and many of his colleagues feel left in the dark about what’s going on with the direction of the university.

“It’s really hurting our educational mission, these political games that people are playing, and I’m sort of ready for people who don’t have to deal with the statue to stop making decisions about what happens on the campus so that we can finally move forward, so we can finally pursue peace,” Sturkey said.

Folt insisted her pending resignation and her decision to finish removing Silent Sam from campus were completely separate thought processes.

“I really have not wanted my job status to be part of my decision-making about the monument, and it has not been,” she said. “I have not used it in that way. that’s not how I’ve thought about it. I try to do the right thing, regardless of that effect on my job situation. It may be hard to believe, but that’s absolutely how I operate.”

The time is right to step away from UNC-Chapel Hill, Folt said, because she has accomplished what she was tasked with doing when she arrived from Dartmouth College more than five years ago. She cited the following accomplishments:

“When you’ve been able to accomplish that with your team, that’s when you start thinking what’s your next play,” she said. “It’s time for the next person to come in and say where they’re going for the next decade.”

Smith declined to say whether the Board of Governors would have fired Folt if she hadn’t put in her resignation.

“I don’t want to elaborate or even go down that thought process,” he said. “We are where we are. The chancellor resigned. We didn’t have to have that conversation. From that perspective, I think the outcome is correct, and I think it’s a good outcome for Chancellor Folt, too.”

The state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans blasted Folt’s decision to pull Silent Sam’s pedestal and markers off McCorkle Place as illegal and a betrayal of North Carolina’s history.

“She has single-handedly erased the contribution and sacrifice of these brave university veterans and the tribute paid to them by subsequent generations,” the group said in a statement. “Folt’s legacy at UNC, which primarily consists of academic athletic scandals, increased campus crime and a generally declining quality of scholarship, will now include race-baiting, historical revisionism, and illegal acts by the administration.”

Meanwhile, alumni leaders of the Campaign for Carolina, the $4.5 billion fundraising effort, commended Folt’s moves.

“We applaud Chancellor Folt for her principled leadership of our university. The decision to remove all remnants of the Confederate Monument from campus was necessary and right,” the group said in a statement.

Like Silent Sam itself, the pedestal and commemorative plaques will be stored until the future of the monument is decided.

Folt and the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recommended in December to build a $5.3 million history center to display the monument along with information putting it into historical context. But the Board of Governors rejected the plan over cost and safety concerns and appointed a special committee to work with Folt and UNC-Chapel Hill trustees on a new plan.

Smith said Monday that the timeline for the Board of Governors to review that plan in March remains unchanged by Folt’s actions.