Silent Sam’s future still uncertain; UNC Board demands plan from Folt, trustees by Nov. 15

By: - August 29, 2018 4:55 am

A week after protesters toppled the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus, the fate of Silent Sam is still uncertain.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors held overlapping special meetings Tuesday, a week after protesters tore the statue down.

But neither board came to a firm conclusion about the future of the monument, even after hours of closed session meetings in which the boards heard legal advice and discussed security concerns.

Instead, the Board of Governors charged UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and the school’s board of trustees  with putting together a “plan for the monument’s disposition and preservation, by no later than November 15, 2018.”

After it was toppled by protesters, the statue was taken to an undisclosed location. The university has not commented on its condition or what it would take to restore it.

In a press conference after the Board of Trustees’ own four-plus hour closed session, Folt said she and the trustees will consider all options. She would not rule out returning the monument to its original location at McCorkle place and said it was too early to say what other locations on campus may be considered.

Members of the Board of Governors have condemned the statue’s toppling and called for the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the incident – including police response, which board members criticized as ineffective. On Tuesday, the board said they will hire an outside firm to “conduct an external after action assessment and review of UNC-Chapel Hill’s preparation for and response to the August 20 protest.”

UNC Board of Governors

The review will be led by Board of Governors members Phil Byers and Bob Rucho, Board Chairman Harry Smith said in a statement Tuesday, and will be presented to the board as soon as it can be completed.

Some members of the Board of Governors have made it clear they would like to see the statue restored. Board member Thom Goolsby took to YouTube and Twitter last week to say the statue will be reinstalled at UNC “as required by State Law WITHIN 90 days.”

Goolsby was referencing N.C. General Statute 100-2.1(b), part of the 2015 law that made it more difficult to legally remove Confederate statues on state property as public sentiment for their removal swelled.

But the provision he cited in a YouTube video on the subject says statues temporarily relocated under the law for their own protection or because of construction must be replaced within 90 days. It does not speak to a legal requirement for the university system to reinstate a statue that has been vandalized or destroyed.

Whether the university removing the damaged remains of the statue from the ground after it was toppled could be considered voluntarily removing it for its own safety as intended by the law is the subject of debate.

In an opinion column for Raleigh’s News & Observer this week, Eric Muller, the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor at the UNC School of Law, argued it would not.

“Silent Sam was not removed for either of the permitted reasons under the law,” Muller wrote. “He wasn’t removed with the permission of the Historical Commission. He wasn’t removed consistently with the statute in any way. So the law simply doesn’t apply to this situation. On the question of what happens to Silent Sam now that he’s been toppled, we are in a zone that the law simply does not address.”

“Whether Silent Sam must go back on his pedestal within 90 days is a political question,” Muller wrote. “If he once again is to stand his northward-facing vigil against invading Union forces trying to take away the right of a state to let one human being own another, that will be because the Board of Governors wants him there. Not because the law requires it.”

Before the statue was toppled students, staff, faculty and even Gov. Roy Cooper all made the argument that the statue should be relocated for its own protection under that same law. The Board of Governors opposed that idea. Instead, the university spent $390,000 last year on its protection.

Whatever the plan ultimately offered by the trustees, the Nov. 15 deadline ensures that the board of governors could, if they choose, restore the statue within the 90 day time period outlined by the law.

In the wake of the statue’s toppling student, faculty and staff groups have been near unanimous in opposition to the idea of its return.

The day after the statue was torn down, the undergraduate student government at UNC-Chapel Hill released a statement supporting it.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt

“Last night a group of students and community organizers did what few were prepared to do,” they wrote. “They corrected a moral and historical wrong that needed to be righted if we were ever to move forward as a university. Last night, they tore down Silent Sam. They were right to do so.”

Sentiments like those have exposed a long-held tension between the views of students, faculty and staff and those in administration. Folt, like all chancellors, is answerable to the board of governors — a body whose current conservative majority was appointed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Folt, who with UNC President Margaret Spellings has drawn the ire of conservatives on the board in the last year, spoke carefully in prepared remarks to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting of the trustees.

“We will look at all options,” she said. “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 while also following appropriate processes to secure any needed approvals from the Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors, the North Carolina Historical Commission and the North Carolina General Assembly.”

Folt said the “eyes of the nation” are now on UNC-Chapel Hill and quoted the Senator John McCain, who died this week.

“We don’t hide from history,” Folt quoted. “We make history.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.