UNC Board of Governors member questions whether controversial Silent Sam “shrine” proposal meets state law

By: - December 11, 2018 4:33 pm

As the UNC Board of Governors prepares to take up the fate of the Silent Sam Confederate monument Friday, one board member says he’s skeptical of a controversial $5.3 million plan to build a history center that would house — and protect — the divisive statue.

“I’m not sure the law permits this,” Marty Kotis, a commercial real estate investor and developer from Summerfield, told Policy Watch Tuesday.

In 2015, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law  protecting such monuments amid a growing movement to have them scrapped. UNC-Chapel Hill administrators argued the law prevented them from removing the statue from its traditional site at McCorkle Place, a center of campus life.

Since protesters toppled the statue in August, Chancellor Carol Folt and the school’s trustees have argued the law would prevent them from moving it off-campus to a museum or battlefield.

But Kotis said their suggested solution appears to violate a portion of the law that would indicate the statue cannot be moved to a museum or cemetery if it was not originally erected there. If it is relocated, according to the law, it must be to a place of “similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.”

The proposed UNC history center may have other elements — class space, for instance — but Kotis said that most people would recognize it as a museum.

“If it looks like a museum and it smells like a museum, I’m not sure the law changes,” Kotis said.

Comments by Folt and some trustees have also made it clear they would not like the statue returned to a place of similar prominence on campus, Kotis said. In fact, Kotis says their report says they would much prefer it to be off campus completely. That may account for the proposed placement in the Odum Village area, near the edge of the developed campus. Once home to campus family housing, the buildings there are scheduled for demolition as the campus expands.

“We’ve had the chancellor say she didn’t want this at the front door of the university,” Kotis said. “And so it does seem you’ve moved it from the front door to the back door.”

In addition to the building costs, the center, proposed to open by 2022, would cost about $800,000 a year in operational expenses. Folt said UNC-Chapel Hill would ask the Board of Governors — whose conservative majority have for the last few years concentrated on cutting expenses and finding efficiencies — to appropriate the money.

That’s a big ask, Kotis said.

“I haven’t built any building that cost almost $1,000 a square foot,” Kotis said. “And $800,000 a year to run it…that does seem exorbitant. As I’ve learned with university system stuff, they probably couldn’t build a dog house for $5 million.”

Asking for that kind of money — and money for recurring expenses related to it — is tough when that money could go to other schools and other needs, he said.

“I would think given the amount of money they’ve been able to spend, $20 million or so on athletic/academic scandals and $12 million for a coach buy-out, I would think they could find some private funds or foundation money for something like this,” Kotis said.

Kotis’ fellow board member, Thom Goolsby, has dismissed the UNC-CH suggestion, calling it “sheer cowardice” on behalf of school leadership who are afraid to return the statue to its traditional place.

Kotis said he wouldn’t go that far.

“I don’t think their hearts are in the wrong place,” Kotis said.

The safety of students and the university community has to come first, Kotis said,  something on which he believes the Board of Governors and UNC-CH Board of Trustees agree. But returning the statue to McCorkle Place with attractive but secure fencing, video cameras and proper security would be a much more effective way of achieving that, he claims.

Kotis said he also believes dealing appropriately with violent left-wing protesters who endanger the statue would cut down on the number of right wing or alt-right protesters who feel they have to come to campus to protect it, which would avoid violent conflicts between the two groups.

For that reason, he said he would support something like the proposed ”mobile force platoon” to deal with protests that may grow violent or include property destruction at the 17 campuses of the UNC system.

Both the proposed return of Silent Sam to campus and the proposed mobile force have been met with outrage by faculty, staff and students in Chapel Hill.

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 last week supporting those who take part in withholding grades and discouraged the university from retaliating against them. They also pledged 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. Nearly 200 have signed on so far, pledging their support.

Kotis said he plans to make a motion at Friday’s Board of Governors meeting that the board terminate or expel any faculty or students who withhold grades and assure they can never be hired by or admitted to any UNC school in the future.

“What all those people have in common is they’re prioritizing their own demands and their own agenda over the well-being of the students,” Kotis said.

There are students who have graduation, military commissions, graduate school admissions, job offers and visas that depend on them getting their final grades, Kotis said.

“It’s beyond dereliction of duty,” Kotis said. “That I’d put more along the line of, ‘What if they went up and punched a student?’ What would we do? Because frankly I think there are some students who would rather get punched by a TA than withhold their grades.”

Professors have also been encouraging students to support the grade strike, Kotis said, which is crossing yet another line.

“They’ve in this one move lived up to all the fears that people in this state have about higher education,” Kotis said. “People in this state fear that when they send their kids off to school, they’re going to have some liberal professor who says, ‘If you don’t agree with me, I’m going to punish you. I’m going to force you to align with my thoughts.’”

Kotis predicted the board will probably not take any definitive action on the future of the statue Friday, but will ask for legal advice and have further discussion.

On the withholding of grades — and what to do with instructors participating in that form of protest — Kotis said he hopes they’ll move more swiftly.

“There are ways in a democracy to change the things you disagree with,” Kotis said. “You lobby. You vote. You get laws changed. This can’t be how you do it. It can’t be 80 or 100 people deciding these things for everyone, for every school and every student in the system.”

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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.