Student, faculty protests against return of ‘Silent Sam’ to UNC Chapel Hill gain momentum

By: - December 10, 2018 1:53 pm

As UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt addressed a tense Faculty Council meeting Friday, a group of students interrupted her defense of a controversial plan to return the Silent Sam Confederate monument to campus.

Angum Check, a senior at UNC and co-chair of the UNC Black Congress, confronted Folt at the head of the lecture hall.

“You handed me the Martin Luther King Student Scholarship Award this year,” Check told Folt to her face, pointing forcefully at her for emphasis. “And I want to tell you, you are a disgrace. Never utter MLK’s words ever again.”

As Check spoke, faculty around the room began to snap their fingers in encouragement and support. A number of them stood silently in solidarity with her message.

Turning from Folt, Check addressed the assembled faculty members, encouraging them to join a movement begun by graduate students and teaching assistants to withhold final grades this semester until the plan to restore the Confederate monument is rescinded.

“Right now this action is the only thing telling us you care about our wellbeing,” Check told faculty members, calling the statue an affront to the dignity and safety of Black students on campus. “That statue should not be on this campus.”

Angum Check

With finals taking place now and grades due this week, more than 80 faculty members and teaching assistants have pledged to withhold grades through a locked online poll. The action would impact more than 2,400 grades, which they have pledged to release once:

  1. The Board of Trustees’ abandons its proposals to return the monument to campus and create a “mobile force platoon” to deal with protests at the 17 campuses of the UNC system.
  2. The UNC Board of Governors holds a listening session with the campus community. The board meets Friday, Dec. 14 to take up the Board of Trustees’ proposal.

The number of those pledged to withhold grades continues to grow, with updates through the @StrikeDownSam twitter handle.

Faculty and graduate students from the School of Education released a statement Thursday supporting those who take part in the withholding of grades and discouraging the university from retaliating against them. They also pledge not to teach the first week of the Spring 2019 semester if the Board of Governors adopts the proposal to return the monument to campus. More than 100 have signed on, pledging their support.

Graduate students involved in the movement call the move a non-violent protest action using their best possible leverage – the labor they provide the university. They have been threatened with legal action and punishment through the university, but say they’re willing to take what comes.

“We’re trying not frame it as a ‘strike’ but a non-violent protest action,” said Danielle Dulken, a PhD candidate in the American Studies Department helping to organize the move. “The work is still being done, the grading is still being done. But the grades are being withheld. Because we’re a large workforce for the university and we provide so much of the labor, this is something we felt we could flex, so to speak.”

Bob Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost and Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, sent an email to instructors last week, attempting to dissuade them from supporting the action. The email warned of legal ramifications.

“We trust that our instructors will not act in a way that harms the interests of students and their families,” they wrote in the letter. “And that these instructors meet the legal, ethical and moral responsibilities for which they have been contracted. Please consider that your failure to meet your responsibilities to your students, including timely submission of final grades, will result in serious consequences.”

Administration officials have warned that students whose scholarships, visas and other life arrangements depend upon being able to produce grades could face real harm as a result of the withholding of grades.

Graduate students involved in organizing the action say they recognize that and are working on a way to be sure those students are protected.

At Friday’s Faculty Council meeting, Folt and university General Counsel Mark Merritt said the administration and the Board of Trustees would prefer to keep the Silent Sam monument, which was toppled by protesters in August, off of the campus entirely. But a 2015 law passed to protect such monuments against a growing movement to remove them makes that legally impossible, they said. The plan to build a $5.3 million UNC history center in which the statue will be housed with much higher security is an attempt to find a legal recourse, which is what the system’s Board of Governors demanded of the school’s trustees.

That’s a position with which many faculty, students and legal experts disagree – some arguing that federal Civil Rights law can be used to allow the university to permanently remove the statue and keep it off campus.

At the meeting last week, the Faculty Council passed a resolution opposing the monument’s return to campus, which is consistent with the position taken by faculty, staff and student groups for more than a year as the long-lived controversy has finally come to a head.

UNC Historian Harry Watson

Speaking at the Faculty Council meeting, UNC Historian Harry Watson said the moral choice is clear, but the administration seems to be ignoring it.

“There is not a tolerable legal course for us to take,” Watson said. “Therefore I think we have to take the action more important than all our other duties: to sustain an inclusive and supportive environment for our students and the state as a whole.”

“We have a desperate need for moral leadership from the top that will have the courage to break an unjust law, say why and take the risks that that involves,” Watson said.

A large number of students – graduate and undergraduate – agree. Further, they said they are frustrated by the administration’s dismissal of the majority of its student body, faculty and staff and its willingness to instead appease the conservative dominated Board of Governors, appointed by the Republican majority of the North Carolina General Assembly.

“At its core this is about the university not recognizing the harm done to students – especially Black students – by this monument to those who fought for white supremacy,” said Jerry Wilson, a PhD candidate in the School of Education. “They’ve placed the wellbeing of a statue above the well being of Black people.”

Jerry Wilson

By threatening faculty and teaching assistants who have pledged to withhold grades, Wilson said, the administration is failing to recognize a desperate plea to be heard.

“They talk about the harm to students done by withholding grades,” Wilson said. “And they do it without the slightest hint of irony over how their actions – how defending this monument – is doing real harm to students.”

Having a Confederate monument in a place of prominence and honor on campus is like glorifying Nazi propaganda and saying it’s necessary to preserve history, Wilson said. History can be preserved and taught in ways that don’t glorify its atrocities, he said, and real historians and educators recognize that.

“Students, faculty and staff who understand the importance of this issue need to stay strong,” Wilson said. “There are plenty of people on our side and there is plenty of law on our side, too.”

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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.