In major reversal, UNC Board of Governors chair voices opposition to return of ‘Silent Sam’

By: - May 23, 2019 5:30 am

Restoring the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument to its original place at UNC-Chapel Hill is “not the right path,” UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said Wednesday.

His thinking has undergone an evolution, Smith said at a press conference following a full meeting of the board of governors.

“My original view and opinion, which I think was probably quick and uneducated, was just to put it back up,” Smith said. “Having taken the time, energy and effort and talking to a lot of people I have tremendous faith and trust in, it’s my view and opinion as one member that that’s not the right path.”

Earlier this month, Smith announced a second delay in unveiling a potential plan for the statue, which was toppled by protesters last August.

Controversy over the statue and its future played a part in public conflicts between the board and former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. Both women resigned their positions in the turmoil after the statue’s toppling and the struggle over whether it would return to campus.

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper and Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz have both gone on record as saying the statue should not return to the campus at Chapel Hill.

For the last few months tensions between anti-racist protesters, white supremacist groups and campus police have led to arrests, physical violence, threats and racist vandalism on campus.

After it was toppled by protesters last August, the damaged Confederate statue was taken to a secure, undisclosed location.

The board tasked Folt and the school’s Board of Trustees with crafting a plan for the monument. But it swiftly rejected a plan they proposed for a $5.3 million UNC history museum on campus where the statue could be securely kept.

Instead, the board appointed five of its own members – Darrell Allison, Jim Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho – to “go back to the drawing board” with the chancellor and trustees and to come up with a new plan.

That plan has failed to materialize and there is currently no deadline by which the public can expect it.

The multiple delays reflect a board that appears to be still sharply divided. Last week, outgoing board member Joe Knott wrote a column for Raleigh’s News & Observer in which he advocated restoring the statue to its original location and said the “mob” that brought the statue down shouldn’t decide the issue.

“The university is a school, and schools teach,” Knott wrote. “The question is what are we teaching? Do we intend to teach that efficiency always trumps principle? Is easy expediency the guide to a good life?”

“If the leaders of the university heed the threats of violent people, we will be saying that the principles necessary for a civilized society: civility, lawfulness, reasoned debate; those principles we all say are non-negotiable are negotiable after all,” the essay continued.

That sentiment is strong among some of the board’s most conservative members. Board member Thom Goolsby has repeatedly taken to his YouTube channel to say the statue must be re-erected under a 2015 law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly to protect such monuments.

Smith is himself known as one of the board’s more conservative and combative members. A public change in his position on the monument could signal a shift on the board, which has struggled with the question of whether and how to restore the statue since it was first brought down.

“From my perspective, my views and opinions have evolved greatly as I’ve gone through the process and learned,” Smith said Wednesday. “I think others’ have as well.”

Smith said he is just one member and he works at the will of the board, which has said has a lot of smart people. They’re going through the process deliberately rather than quickly in order to make the best decision, he said. No deadline now on a new plan for the monument.

“It would be easy to rush, make a decision and move on,” Smith said. “I don’t think that would be the right thing to do either. The goal here is simply to get it right.

Smith said there were “a lot of key people” to talk to on the issue.

Asked if a new law is needed to resolve the issue, Smith was less expansive.

“I’m not a legislator,” he said. “We’re just working — our board is working really, really hard. And the goal is just to get it right. Whatever right is, that is the goal.”


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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.