Carol Folt had to make a decision, and none of the options was great. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chancellor was caught between a conservative Board of Governors that seemed to favor returning a monument of a Confederate soldier, known as Silent Sam, to the pedestal from which it had been yanked last fall and a student body that heavily favored its permanent removal. The stakes—her job, but also the security of UNC’s campus—were high.
In a letter to the campus community on January 14, Folt announced that she’d made up her mind. She’d be stepping down at the end of the semester, and she’d be taking down what was left of Silent Sam, immediately. “The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment,” she wrote. “No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe.”
Folt’s choice highlights the tightrope that university leaders walk between ideologically driven boards and their campus constituencies. “When you get right down to it, the relationship with the board—and the extent to which the board is separate from campus, and doesn’t necessarily have a full appreciation for the different views that may exist on campus—that disconnect puts presidents in an incredibly difficult position,” Michael Harris, a professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied the turnover of college presidents, told me. That difficult position may be one that fewer qualified candidates for college leadership are choosing to take. One survey noted that in the past decade, more current college presidents have been sidestepping the traditional pathways to leadership and, anecdotally, even some of those nontraditional candidates have turned down potentially tumultuous positions. But if leaders with higher-education experience won’t do the job, who will?