UNC Punts on Silent Sam

The Board of Governors rejected UNC Chapel Hill’s plan to build a $5.3 million building for the Confederate statue, setting the stage for a renewed battle in March.

Gerry Broome / AP

There was shock, then backlash. Last week, officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced their plans for the infamous Confederate statue known as Silent Sam, and those plans hardly satisfied anyone.

On Friday, protesters converged outside of the Center for Leadership Development at Chapel Hill as, inside, the UNC system’s Board of Governors met to deliberate on the university’s plan to erect a $5.3 million building on campus to house the monument. The building would also serve as a university history center. Ahead of the meeting, some board members expressed reservations about the proposal. Was there not a building already on campus that could house Silent Sam without having to spend $5.3 million on a new facility? Others argued that moving the statue to any building, but especially the proposed history center—which has all the hallmarks of a museum—might be illegal due to a state law that says prominently displayed monuments can’t be moved to museums.

In the end, the Board of Governors decided to punt. Harry Smith, the chair of the board, announced that they would be denying the plan presented by UNC Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol Folt, last week. For reasons of public safety, Smith said, alongside the sheer cost of the recommendation, the board could not support the plan. The board charged five of its members to meet with Folt to review other options for the statue. The deadline for the new recommendations is March 15, 2019.

The vote by the Board of Governors bookends a chaotic two weeks at the flagship institution. Late last week, more than 80 teaching assistants pledged to withhold final-exam grades for the fall semester unless the proposal was withdrawn, though they would make exceptions for students who needed final grades for graduation, job, or immigration purposes. Administrators forcefully responded. There would be “serious consequences” for such a strike, they said. One member of the Board of Governors—equating the action with “violence”—said that he would push for the expulsion of those who would participate in such a protest.

Then there was the striking incident during a faculty-council meeting where a black student, Angum Check, who had earned a Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship, confronted Folt. “I want to tell you, you are a disgrace,” Check said.

On Thursday, members of perhaps the most lauded organization on the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s campus, the men’s basketball team—including the alumni and NBA stars Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, and Harrison Barnes, alongside several other former black athletes—sent a statement to university officials expressing “deep concern” about the proposal. “We love UNC but now also feel a disconnect from an institution that was unwilling to listen to students and faculty who asked for Silent Sam to be permanently removed from campus,” they wrote in a letter first reported by Spectacular Magazine, and confirmed by The Washington Post. “The recommendation is embarrassing to us who proudly promote UNC.”

Ultimately, the decision to punt is not surprising, given the consternation the plan has stirred up over the past several days. So, for now, officials will go back to the drawing board, and both Silent Sam’s supporters and those who would prefer him consigned to history will prepare for another battle in March.