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UNC leader announces plan to remove Confederate pedestal

January 15, 2019
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FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2018, file photo, police stand guard after the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled by protesters on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. The chancellor of North Carolina's flagship public university said Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, the school will remove the pedestal where the Confederate statue stood until protesters tore it down. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
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FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2018, file photo, police stand guard after the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled by protesters on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. The chancellor of North Carolina's flagship public university said Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, the school will remove the pedestal where the Confederate statue stood until protesters tore it down. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

North Carolina’s flagship public university plans to remove the pedestal where a now-toppled Confederate statue once stood on a main campus quad, its chancellor said Monday.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt also announced she will step down at the end of the school year. Folt’s surprise order to put the pedestal in storage drew an angry response from the leader of the board overseeing the state’s public universities, but he stopped short of saying he would seek to stop the removal.

Folt said she was concerned about safety at the site that continues to draw protesters for and against the statue known as “Silent Sam,” but she gave no timetable for taking away the massive pedestal and bronze memorial plaques. The items would go into storage while their fate is decided.

“The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment,” Folt said. “No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe.”

The statewide Board of Governors has given itself until mid-March to come up with a plan for the fate of the statue, which also been stored since it was toppled last August by protesters who say it was a racist symbol.

Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith issued a statement saying Folt’s announcement hadn’t altered the panel’s timeline for deciding what to do with the statue.

“We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action,” he said of Folt’s plan to remove the pedestal. “It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity.”

As the public face of the university, Folt had been criticized both by those who wanted the statue gone for good, and those who said state law required it to be restored to where it had stood in McCorkle Place since 1913. The announcement of her departure comes weeks after the rejection of a plan, which Folt helped craft, to build a new $5 million history center on campus to house Silent Sam. Folt’s announcement also comes shortly after the departure of the president of the statewide university system, Margaret Spellings, who had also frequently drawn protesters’ barbs.

The Board of Governors rejected that plan in December and announced it would go “back to the drawing board.” Folt acknowledged in December that the plan to build the history center “didn’t satisfy anyone.”

Folt, who came to UNC in 2013 from Dartmouth College, said Monday she was proud of work she’d overseen on the Campaign for Carolina fundraising drive that raised more than $2 billion as of last summer, or about half of its ambitious goal. “I’ve decided that this is the right time for me to pass the leadership of our outstanding university, with all its momentum, to the next chancellor,” she wrote Monday.

But Folt’s tenure also saw UNC sued by a transgender employee over the state’s so-called bathroom bill, as well as the Silent Sam debate growing more heated after a deadly white nationalist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Some of the Chapel Hill campus trustees issued a statement saying they supported Folt’s decision to remove the pedestal and applauding her service.

“We thank Chancellor Folt for working tirelessly to elevate our University each and every day to serve the people of North Carolina and beyond,” said the statement signed by three trustees and issued by the university.

Board chairman Haywood Cochrane, whose name wasn’t on the statement, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

“Silent Sam” was toppled in August by protesters who decried its origins, including a racist speech by a former Confederate when it was dedicated.

In early December, Folt and the Chapel Hill campus trustees proposed a site for the new history center about a mile from where the statue previously stood, saying they had to balance safety concerns with a strict 2015 state historical law on Confederate monuments. At the time, Folt and several trustees said they would prefer moving the statue off campus entirely, but were restricted by the monuments law that allows relocation only in narrow circumstances.

On Monday night, Frank Powell, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ North Carolina chapter, said he believes removing the pedestal would violate the 2015 law.

“The law is the law, whether you like it or not,” he said by phone, adding that the university has “already succumbed to mob rule” by allowing the statue to be toppled.

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Associated Press writers Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, Allen G. Breed in Wake Forest and Tom Foreman Jr. in Winston-Salem contributed to this report.

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