Dozens of protesters gathered in the rain outside the UNC Center for School Leadership Friday, Dec. 14, to protest the potential return of the Confederate statue dubbed “Silent Sam” to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Now it looks as if the debate will continue into next year.
After a nearly three-hour closed session, the UNC System Board of Governors rejected the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ proposal to move Silent Sam to a $5.3 million historical center on campus. Board member Thom Goolsby was the only “no” vote. Goolsby wanted the statue restored immediately to its original site on McCorkle Place.
UNC BOG Chair Harry Smith said the board can’t support the UNC trustees’ decision because of its hefty cost and concerns over public safety on the campus.
“At the end of the day, I think the $5.3 million was very tough for a lot of us to swallow,” Smith said during a news conference after the board passed the resolution. “The goal here is to simply get this right.”
The UNC BOG resolution calls for a task force of board members to work with the UNC-Chapel Hill board to devise a new plan for Silent Sam. Board of Governors members Darrell Allison, Jim Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson, and Bob Rucho were chosen for the task force. The body is expected to present a new proposal no later than March 15.
“We appreciate the opportunity to have more time to develop the best plan to relocate the monument,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said.
Folt said the university is committed to looking into offsite options for the statue.
“No university today would consider putting a statue like this up on their campus,” Folt said.
For months Silent Sam has been tucked away in storage while board members and university officials figured out what to do with the statue. State law prohibits a historic monument to be moved to a new location unless permission is granted by the N.C. Historical Commission or if the General Assembly intervenes. Neither body has taken responsibility for deciding Silent Sam’s fate.
Aug. 19, hundreds of protesters marched on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. By the end of the night they had torn down Silent Sam. Activists have long argued the statue, which was constructed in 1913, is a symbol of white supremacy and caused distress for minority students on campus. Supporters of the statue contend Silent Sam is a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers and an integral part of Southern and UNC history.
After being toppled, the statue was moved to storage while university officials determined its fate.
Dec. 3, the UNC-Chapel Hill trustees unveiled a plan to house Silent Sam in a yet to be built historical center. While several BOT members expressed a desire to move the statue off-campus, the law requires the monument be returned to a place of equal prominence, honor, visibility, and accessibility. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said moving Silent Sam to a new historical center on campus would comply with the law.
Reactions to the proposal were swift and often negative. Part of the proposal calls for a systemwide mobile police force to respond to future protests. The National Council of Public History came out against the proposal and argued the mobile police force is an “ominous effort to suppress debate.”
More than 200 former and current UNC athletes have signed an open letter condemning the Silent Sam plan. Several student organizations, faculty unions, and activists groups have vocally denounced the move as well. At least 79 teacher assistants and instructors have joined a “grade strike” in protest of the Silent Sam proposal. The TAs and instructors are threatening to withhold 2,200 grades if the statue returns to campus.
Earlier this week UNC BOG member Marty Kotis said the proposed grade strike was out of line.
“When people start saying you have to believe something or we’re not going to release your grades unless this is done, they’re putting their personal agendas ahead of the students,” Kotis said.
Leslie Parise, Chair of the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill, encouraged faculty to make their voices heard but in a way that doesn’t jeopardize students.
“The faculty I have been in contact with on the Faculty Executive Committee and Faculty Council support the goal of this action, but many have expressed concern that withholding grades will do much more harm than good in helping us reach this goal,” Parise wrote to faculty colleagues and graduate teaching assistants.
Exams ended Friday. Professors have 72 hours to post final grades. At press time, it was unclear if the BOG’s decision would affect the proposed strike.
One of the major points of contention is the price tag for the historical center. Building the center would cost an estimated $5.3 million and $800,000 annually would be needed for operating costs.
“We would have never approved public funds for this,” Smith said. “It is my understanding that they would have funded it privately, but we are also not comfortable with $5.3 million for a building at this time.”
The proposal calls for building the center in Odum Village, south of the Dean Smith Center and the main UNC Health Care campus. Odum Village was built in the 1960s as apartments for graduate students and students with children. The apartments were demolished in 2016 and the property hasn’t been used since.
The staff at Odum Institute for Research in Social Science sent an open letter claiming the Silent Sam proposal is “an affront to the Odum Legacy.” The “Odum” in Odum Village refers to Dr. Howard Odum, a pioneer of social science who had written on the racial inequalities prevalent in the South.
“Therefore we, the staff of the Odum Institute, also believe that the presence of Silence Sam at a location named for our founder — or anywhere on this campus – is an affront to Dr. Howard W. Odum’s legacy of working for the rights of all citizens to participate freely and equally in society free of discrimination, free of prejudice and free of fear,” the letter reads.