Delay in ‘Silent Sam’ decision reflects divided UNC leadership while spurring suspicion, concern in community

Delay in ‘Silent Sam’ decision reflects divided UNC leadership while spurring suspicion, concern in community

- in Higher Ed, Top Story

At its meeting next week, the UNC Board of Governors was scheduled to unveil a new plan for the future of the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam.”

But late Tuesday afternoon, board Chairman Harry Smith released a statement saying the board has decided to again postpone it.

“In early March, we set the May meeting of the UNC Board of Governors as a tentative reporting date to consider possible solutions for the confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill, commonly known as Silent Sam,” Smith said in the statement.

“A small group of Board members is prepared to review and discuss options at an appropriate time,” Smith said. “However, our Board and the universities have also been focused on a number of other issues, including the legislative session, and there is nothing to report at this time. Therefore, the monument issue will not be on our agenda for the May meeting.”

The board has set no future date for discussion of the plan, according to Joshua Ellis, UNC Associate Vice President for Media Relations.

Chairman Harry Smith

The delay reflects a division on the board and among UNC administrators on next steps, according to two board members who spoke to Policy Watch and requested that their names not be disclosed because they are not authorized to speak on the issue. A small group of board members were appointed to work on the plan and have not shared many details beyond their own group, the board members said.

After it was toppled by protesters last August, the damaged Confederate statue was taken to a secure, undisclosed location. Board members were divided on its future – some publicly insisting a 2015 law passed by the General Assembly means it must be re-erected on campus, others quietly hoping to preserve the statue and peace on campus by moving it elsewhere.

The board tasked then-UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and the school’s Board of Governors with crafting a plan for the monument. But it swiftly rejected a plan 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.

Much has happened since the board first began wrestling with the monument’s fate.

Both Folt and UNC System President Margaret Spellings resigned after long-simmering tensions with the Board of Governors exploded into public conflict, some of it sparked by their handling of the monument issue.

The Board of Governors replaced both women – Spellings with Interim UNC System President Bill Roper and Folt with Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Both new leaders have gone on record saying they don’t believe the statue should return to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

That public disagreement with the position of some of the board’s most conservative members caused irritation on the board and with some of the GOP lawmakers who appointed them, board members told Policy Watch.

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.

With sentiment among students, faculty and staff firmly against the statue’s return, many on campus said they were heartened that both Roper and Guskiewicz have taken a stand against it. But most said they aren’t holding out much hope that the Board of Governors, all political appointees of the Republican dominated General Assembly, will listen to the university’s leaders any more than they have heeded the words of its students.

The Board of Governors has twice postponed discussion of the new plan for the monument – something many students say has made them uneasy.

De’lvyion Drew

“I am feeling a little suspicious of what they will do,” said De’Ivyion Drew, a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and board member of the campus’ Black Congress. “Especially with the board making the decision to postpone until May, when most students are gone until the next school year.”

Drew said she wasn’t pleased by the board’s delay when it was announced Tuesday, but she also wasn’t surprised.

“I personally think, from a student perspective, as long as grass is growing [at the statue’s former site at McCorkle Place], I’m good. However this looks on a grand scheme really bad because the Board of Governors likes to do stuff under the table.”

“But I do think that both Interim President Roper and Interim Chancellor Guskiewicz coming out with clear statements against Silent Sam returning to campus is good,” Drew said. “They did that in a way that reflected the values of the community well and I think they knew they had to do something to directly address the controversy. I’m proud of them for standing with their community.”

James Sadler

James Sadler, a PhD student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, said the board has stalled on the issue long enough.

“I’m frustrated by the delay, as I don’t think it should take months to determine that Sam should not return anywhere near campus,” Sadler said. “Thanks to the activist movement led by Black women undergraduate and graduate students, there is clear community consensus that Sam should not come back. Putting this decision in limbo it’s both concerning and dangerous, as it will likely further embolden white supremacists to come to campus and continue to advocate their hate.”

It may also be part of a larger strategy by the board, Sadler said.

“It’s also concerning that the BOG may be trying to use a stall tactic, and wait out the strong opposition towards Sam before making a decision, hoping that loud activists will eventually leave or wear out,” Sadler said. “I’m confident that this tactic would fail and the community against white supremacy at UNC is only getting stronger.”

Lindsay Ayling, a PhD student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s History department, agreed.

Lindsay Ayling

“The delay speaks to the power of the anti-racist movement at UNC,” Ayling said. “We have repeatedly demonstrated that the community will not tolerate the presence of a monument to white supremacy on our campus. The Board of Governors has been extremely sympathetic to Silent Sam in the past, and absent our activism I’m sure they would have put it back in McCorkle Place a long time ago.”

“However, I would urge the Board of Governors to announce as soon as possible that Silent Sam will not return to campus in any form,” Ayling said. “As long as the possibility is there, white supremacist neo-Confederate groups will continue to use Silent Sam as a pretext to hold rallies in Chapel Hill. These groups have carried guns onto campus and threatened to murder specific anti-racist activists in the past, so it’s vital not to give them a reason to gather in our town.”

Cortland Gilliam, a PhD student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Education, said he still plans on attending next week’s Board of Governors meeting and that plenty of students will keep the pressure on.

Cortland Gilliam

“We suspected this could happen, that they would punt it down the road,” Gilliam said. “I think they’re thinking that the further this gets down the road, the campus will assume some kind of normalcy or what they call ‘back to the mission of the university.’”

But for many UNC students, especially those of color, opposing white supremacy – either in the form of a statue romanticizing the Confederacy or neo-Confederate white supremacists on campus – is an important part of that mission, Gilliam said.

“I think the Board of Governors is showing showing they don’t want to take any kind of courageous action on this and make our UNC community a leader on this issue – even in the context of other institutions.”

“But racism isn’t going away and neither are we,” Gilliam said. “The students and the community are going to continue battling white supremacy in its many manifestations on the campus and in the culture.”