New ‘Silent Sam’ revelations contradict past public assurances offered by UNC Chancellor Guskiewicz

By: - February 4, 2021 12:20 pm

Silent Sam Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Above video is an excerpt of a public livestream of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council meeting.

In December 2019, Kevin Guskiewicz, then the new UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, appeared before a concerned and angry Faculty Council.

The UNC System had just announced its Board of Governors had settled a lawsuit with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans. The settlement would not only give the group the controversial Silent Sam Confederate monument but also $2.5 million in trust to care for it. 

The agreement felt like an affront to many faculty members and students who had fought for decades to legally remove the statue. Protesters toppled it in 2018. 

Faculty members wanted answers. Were UNC administrators in on this deal? Had they helped to craft it, consulted on it, given approval?

“No, we were not asked to approve the Board of Governors’ settlement,” Guskiewicz said. “And therefore no, we were not consulted. Therefore, weighing in on the $2.5 million trust? No.”

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

According, however, to documents released this week as part of a lawsuit Guskiewicz was not accurately describing the situation.

Clayton Somers, vice chancellor for public affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill, was among four people who negotiated the deal, according to a signed statement from UNC System.

Before joining the UNC Chapel Hill administration in 2017 — in a new position created by the General Assembly — Somers had served as chief of staff to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, one of the state’s most powerful Republican leaders.

This revelation comes after UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, agreed this week to settle its lawsuit against the UNC System over the handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument controversy.

DTH Media Corp, the parent company of the student paper, had sued the UNC System and its Board of Governors, arguing the board had secretly crafted the deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and presented it without holding public meetings or discussions.

In a written statement, UNC System officials claimed five members of the Board of Governors did not actually negotiate the settlement, as they had previously asserted.

Instead Somers, UNC System attorneys Tom Shanahan and Ripley Rand, and Boyd Sturges, a lawyer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, negotiated the deal “on or about November 21, 2019” — shortly before Guskiewicz appeared before the Faculty Council and denied UNC administrators were involved.

Representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill said they have no comment beyond what exists in the settlement documents.

Josh Ellis, UNC System associate vice president for media relations, said a written statement released as part of the settlementdetails steps taken in 2019 to prevent the Sons of Confederate Veterans from holding gatherings or displaying flags on any UNC campus.”

“These discussions were in full compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Law,” Ellis said in a statement. “All along, the efforts sought to resolve the disposition of the monument, with the goal of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff, and visitors on campus.”

Clayton Somers, vice chancellor for public affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill

Somers’s direct involvement in the deal creates further tension between Guskiewicz and the faculty — a group that has often felt deceived or excluded from major decisions.

“It’s really disappointing to know that there was an upper-level UNC-Chapel Hill administrator who was involved in the…lawsuit and the idea of settling for $2.5 million,” said Eric Muller, a law professor and member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee.

Somers’s role in crafting the deal would not have been surprising if he was lobbying the legislature to amend the monuments law allowing the statue to be returned to campus, Muller said. After all, Somers has strong ties to the legislature and doing so would have been within the scope of his job.

But his involvement in a “bogus lawsuit” is a different matter, Muller said.

“That he would continue in those discussions is surprising given the university’s values,” Muller said. “And it’s surprising that senior leadership, the chancellor, would maintain we had no involvement in it when it appears we did.”

The possibility exists that Somers was involved in discussions of the lawsuit without the chancellor’s knowledge, Muller said.

“Which would be concerning in a different way,” Muller said. “Because it was a long time coming. This wasn’t something that was hatched overnight.”

The faculty executive committee meets regularly with the chancellor and provost Robert Blouin, Muller said. Neither  revealed that an administration official was involved in the Silent Sam negotiations. Indeed, Guskiewicz flatly denied it. If he knew, Muller said, “that would feel like a breach of confidence to me, a breach of trust.”

If they didn’t know, he said, that would amount to poor supervision of administrative staff by the chancellor.

Without the Daily Tar Heel lawsuit “it is absolutely clear” that the public would never have known the details of the deal struck with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Muller said.

Somers’s involvement in the settlement also represents a potential political conflict of interest. The NC Sons of Confederate Veterans group is connected to the NC Heritage PAC, a conservative political action committee run by SCV leaders that has provided $28,500 to GOP campaign committees since its formation in 2016. That includes $2,500 to Moore, for whom Somers worked before the General Assembly created the UNC job he now holds.

The State Board of Elections is investigating the PAC. As a nonprofit, the SCV is prohibited from running a PAC. But members of the SCV previous confirmed to Policy Watch that group leaders run the NC Heritage PAC; members were asked to contribute to it as a political arm of the SCV. They say they are cooperating with the State Board’s investigation.

And Somers’s involvement wasn’t the only revelation in court documents.

“An authenticity perspective”

Among the new details: The five UNC Board of Governors members who signed an op-ed that ran in the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer describing their negotiation of the deal did not actually participate in the negotiations or write the editorial to which they lent their names.

Then UNC System Vice President for Communications Earl Whipple testified he wrote the op-ed. Board of Governors members Darrell Allison, Jim Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho signed the final product to add “authenticity,” Whipple said.

“It was my professional recommendation that individual names gives a public face to this,” Whipple said, according to an 83-page transcript of his deposition. “And since these five were, you know, tasked with working on this issue, my recommendation was we draft something that all five of them could sign onto.”

Whipple said that he wrote the op-ed without speaking with the five members about their involvement in the negotiations — or whether they had any involvement at all.

“I mean, we certainly could have taken the route of having it just be, you know, an organizationally-authored thing,” Whipple said. “But I thought from a public relations perspective and an authenticity perspective, it’s more powerful that individual names were put to this.”

Authenticity isn’t the best description, attorney Hugh Stevens, who represented the paper in its lawsuit, told The Daily Tar Heel.

“In a clumsy attempt to shine a favorable light on two controversial agreements with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he inveigled five members of the Board of Governors to lend their names and reputations to a fictitious narrative claiming that they had negotiated both,” Stevens told the paper. “…Instead, Whipple merely invoked their names in his attempt to put a gloss on two questionable agreements cooked up by lawyers behind closed doors.”

In his deposition, Whipple denied that the op-ed was untruthful or misleading. Using the word “we” in ghost-writing the statement was a matter of simplicity and using fewer words to describe a complicated issue, he said.

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Silent Sam, a short history

  • June 2, 1913: The Confederate monument that will come to be known as “Silent Sam” is erected on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill to memorialize UNC students who fought on behalf of the Confederacy in the Civil War. At its unveiling, industrialist and UNC alumnus Julian Carr brags about having horse-whipped a Black woman on Franklin Street for disrespecting a white woman and makes an explicit connection between the statue and the white supremacist ideology for which the Confederacy stood. About one-third of the statue’s cost was raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. University historians can find no deed of gift or formal agreement between the UDC and the university establishing the group’s ownership of or property rights to the statue.
  • 2015: A national movement to remove Confederate monuments gains traction. In response, North Carolina legislators pass a law prohibiting a “monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State to removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.” Protests against Silent Sam intensify and neo-Confederates, some of them armed, begin to rally at the statue.
  • Summer 2017: Duke University voluntarily removes the Robert E. Lee statue outside of Duke Chapel. The UNC-Chapel Hill administration and UNC Board of Governors continue to resist calls to remove Silent Sam. Then-UNC System President Margaret Spellings emails the UNC Board of Governors a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper outlining concerns the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue could pose a threat to students and could, in the charged environment, be in danger of being damaged or destroyed. Ultimately, the board rejects the suggestion.
  • Aug. 21, 2018: Protesters topple the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument. Board of Governors members criticize UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt’s and Spellings’ handling of the protests leading up to its toppling and the response to the event. Spellings soon resigns.
  • December 2018: Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees suggest housing the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue in a new, $5.3 million UNC history center. The Board of Governors rejects the plan and appoints a task force composed of board members to work with Folt and the trustees on a new plan for the statue by mid-March. The task force never publicly discusses or releases a plan.
  • January 2019: Chancellor Folt resigns. Kevin Guskiewicz, then Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, replaces her.
  • November 2019: UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Clayton Somers, UNC System attorneys Tom Shanahan and Ripley Rand, and Boyd Sturges, a lawyer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, negotiate a deal whereby the university pays the SCV $74,999 to limit its protests on campus. Court documents would reveal lawyers for the UNC System and SCV collaborated on the scheme to transfer the rights. The convoluted and legally dicey plan is ultimately undone by the same Orange County Superior Court judge who initially approved it. The settlement for the $74,999 was allowed to stand. The one for the $2.5 million is vacated, though the SCV had spent about $82,000 of it toward legal fees.
  • Jan. 7, 2020: The DTH Media Corp., parent company of The Daily Tar Heel, sues the UNC System and its board of governors over the secrecy surrounding the Silent Sam settlement. They argue the board violated the Open Meetings Law in crafting and approving the settlement without a single open session discussion of the issue.
  • Feb. 1, 2021: DTH Media agrees to settle its lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, the UNC System agrees to provide depositions on the negotiations and a written summary of how the agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans came about. It also agrees to provide $74,999 to UNC-Chapel Hill to be used by the chancellor for racial equity initiatives on the school’s campus. No details have yet been provided as to exactly how the money will be spent toward racial equity efforts.

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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.