Police stand behind barriers around Silent Sam statue in Chapel Hill on Tuesday. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com
Police stand behind barriers around Silent Sam statue in Chapel Hill on Tuesday. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Education

UNC trustee leaders defend Folt for not removing Silent Sam Confederate statue

By Jane Stancill

jstancill@newsobserver.com

August 25, 2017 04:01 PM

CHAPEL HILL

Past and present trustee chairmen at UNC-Chapel Hill defended the university’s decision not to remove the Silent Sam Confederate monument.

The current chairman, Haywood Cochrane, was joined by former chairs Dwight Stone, Lowry Caudill and Richard Stevens in making a statement Friday, which they said was meant “to address misinformation about the state law” that governs monuments on public property.

They said they felt compelled to back UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt’s handling of the tense situation around the monument, which was the site of a protest Tuesday attended by hundreds of people. Since then, students have staged a sit-in at the Confederate statue.

Critics have targeted Folt, but trustees praised her “fearless and decisive leadership, her unwavering commitment to the safety of our campus community and the long tradition of open and respectful debate on our campus.”

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The trustees said they were making the statement because of what they described as misinterpretations and false narratives about the university’s legal options.

Through advice from its legal counsel and that of the UNC system, university leaders reached the conclusion that they do not have the authority to take down the monument. On Monday, Folt and UNC President Margaret Spellings, along with leaders of the campus and system boards, wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper asking for help dealing with the security risk around the monument. They asked the governor to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to take up the issue.

Cooper, a Democrat who has supported relocation of Confederate monuments, told university leaders they could go ahead and remove Silent Sam on their own. He cited a public safety exception in the 2015 state law that prohibits the removal of monuments except under certain conditions. The law says that if a building inspector or other official determines there is a safety hazard, it can be taken down. University lawyers say that applies only to the safety of the object itself; there is no structural safety issue with Silent Sam.

Protesters aimed angry chants at Folt on Tuesday, and faculty have expressed frustration, too. In an opinion piece published Thursday in The News & Observer, English professor John McGowan wrote that Folt’s stance was “baffling” after Cooper had given the university “a get out of jail free card.”

“The mind reels,” McGowan wrote. “The chief executive officer of the state tells you that a certain action is legitimate and lawful. But you decide he might be wrong. What could motivate such a decision? Clearly, if the governor gives you the go ahead, you are not going to be prosecuted by his branch’s attorney general if you proceed.”

But the university has received support from Republican leaders in the legislature, which pays the university’s bills.

Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Guilford County, posted a picture of himself standing in front of Silent Sam, saying he was “standing guard.”

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain, praised the university for not taking down the statue.

“Acquiescing to threats of criminal vandalism and confrontation sets a dangerous precedent that state law can be circumvented in the presence of potentially violent intimidation,” Moore said in a statement.

Earlier this week, UNC-Chapel Hill issued a statement that was not attributed to Folt or the board. It said: “Based on law enforcement agencies’ assessments, we continue to believe that removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the University can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina.”

McGowan, the professor, urged Folt to to work with faculty.

“The chancellor is acting like a tinpot autocrat,” McGowan wrote. “On the one hand, afraid of her own shadow, she can’t act decisively when she is handed a green light by the governor. On the other hand, she has isolated herself from the university community, interacting with us through statements that it takes a Talmudic scholar or a Kremlinologist to decipher, and embracing non-transparency.”

Folt’s administration has also been criticized when anti-Silent Sam banners were removed from the Campus Y, a student social justice organization. After the violence in Charlottesville, Va., students unfurled a banner on the Campus Y building that said, “Remove Silent Sam. ‘Violence, racism & hate do not belong on our campuses,’ ” quoting a tweet from Folt.

Two days after the banners went up, students were told to remove them, according to the Campus Y Facebook page. Students declined, and the banners were taken down overnight. “We find this course of action frustrating both because the banners were clearly an exercise of free expression, not an advertisement for an event or good, and because this is part of UNC’s consistent use of facility codes to silence the sort of open dialogue and free speech they regularly claim to desire,” the post said, adding, “Messages oriented towards social justice have been curtailed while memorialization of hate has been protected without fail.”

UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said Friday the university’s facilities use policy does not allow for signage to be hung on the exterior of buildings. “We try to be as consistent as possible in enforcing this policy, and do not take the content of the signage into consideration,” she said.

It’s unclear whether there is a solution to the legal impasse about Silent Sam.

The trustee leaders say they have received guidance from UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette agreeing that “despite a differing opinion from the governor, we have not been given the green light by anyone with authority to relocate the statue. Any suggestion that we have unilateral authority is inaccurate. Any legal options available to us will be guided by discussions with the Board of Governors.”

The trustees further said that Folt has the responsibility “to the people of North Carolina to uphold all state laws.”

“With this new law, it is relatively easy for many individuals to speculate about its meaning or offer possible loopholes as ways to operate around the law,” they added. “It would be unwise and imprudent for the University to take any action regarding the monument without additional legal clarity, and we would expect no less from our chancellor.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Statement from UNC Board of Trustees on Silent Sam

The UNC Board of Trustees issued the following statement Friday on the Silent Sam Confederate monument on the UNC Chapel Hill campus:

As the current and former chairs, we are writing to address misinformation about the state law governing the Confederate Monument, commonly referred to as Silent Sam, and to express our support for the ways the chancellor and the University have been handling this complex matter.

We are making this statement because we are surprised and disappointed at the misinterpretations and false narratives regarding the University’s legal options on this situation.

Our Office of University Counsel and UNC General Administration have advised Chancellor Carol L. Folt that the University does not have the legal authority to move the monument, and the Board agrees with that interpretation of the law, North Carolina General Statute 100-2.1.

Furthermore, we have received guidance from Louis Bissette Jr., chair of the UNC Board of Governors, agreeing with our assertion that, despite a differing opinion from the governor, we have not been given the green light by anyone with authority to relocate the statue. Any suggestion that we have unilateral authority is inaccurate. Any legal options available to us will be guided by discussions with the Board of Governors.

Above all, regardless of the circumstance, the chancellor has a responsibility to the people of North Carolina to uphold all state laws. With this new law, it is relatively easy for many individuals to speculate about its meaning or offer possible loopholes as ways to operate around the law. It would be unwise and imprudent for the University to take any action regarding the monument without additional legal clarity, and we would expect no less from our chancellor. Moreover, the University will enforce all policies regarding signage and the proper use of grounds and facilities. A consistent application of policy is critical to ensuring a functional, daily operation of the University.

Finally, the Board of Trustees has been deeply involved in these discussions and deliberations, and wishes to acknowledge our full support of Chancellor Folt’s fearless and decisive leadership, her unwavering commitment to the safety of our campus community and the long tradition of open and respectful debate on our campus.

Haywood D. Cochrane, Chair

Dwight D. Stone, Former Chair (2015-2017)

W. Lowry Caudill, Former Chair (2013-2015)

Richard Y. Stevens, Former Chair (1997-1999)