UNC system board rejects plan for ‘Silent Sam’ center on campus

December 15, 2018
The UNC at Chapel Hill Board of Governors is expected to consider a plan that would restore the Silent Sam statue to campus.

The UNC Board of Governors on Friday rejected a plan to build a history center to house the controversial “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

The board appointed a committee to devise another plan for the future of the statue, which was toppled during an August protest, and report back to the full board by mid-March.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees last week approved the plan to move the statue to a new $5.3 million building on campus.

Under that proposal, the university would construct a “center for history and education” at Odum Village at the south end of campus. The center would tell a fuller, more honest history of the university, officials said.

But opponents of the plan say the new location is near a Jewish synagogue and is where the majority of black UNC students live.

Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith thanked Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC-Chapel Hill trustees for their work on the plan but said the cost of the center – beyond the construction expense, it would cost $800,000 a year to operate – and concerns over safety made it unworkable.

Smith and UNC President Margaret Spellings spent two hours Thursday speaking with UNC-Chapel Hill students about Silent Sam.

“When you hear the students speak about fear and safety and concerns, it’s pretty real,” Smith said during a news conference after the board meeting. “There’s so much sensationalism on this, but when you get to hear students actually speak from their own hearts, you know, it’ll make you draw pause.”

UNC-Chapel Hill officials did “a phenomenal job in a difficult situation,” he said, but spending $5.3 million on a building to house the statue was “a challenge for the Board of Governors.”

“We would have never approved public funds for the building,” he said. “It’s my understanding that they would’ve funded it privately, but we’re also not comfortable with a $5.3 million building at this point.”

He tasked Board of Governors members Darrell Allison, Jim Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho to work with Folt and the UNC-Chapel Hill trustees to come up with a new plan for “Silent Sam” that the full board can take up at its March 15 meeting.

“We don’t want to rush,” Smith said of waiting another three months for a plan. “The goal here is to get it right.”

Board of Governors member Thom Goolsby, who called UNC-Chapel Hill’s proposal illegal, saying state law mandates returning the statue to its pedestal, was the lone vote against the idea of pursuing another plan.

Folt said she welcomes the chance to work with the Board of Governors on a new proposal.

“The plan we put forward did meet the letter of the charge from the Board of Governors but hasn’t satisfied anyone, and we recognize that,” she said during a conference call with reporters.

“We are the only university in this state that has anything closely resembling this statue. Put here more than one hundred years ago, our community is carrying the burden of an artifact, given to us by a previous generation in a different time,” she said. “The burden of the statue has been and still is disproportionately shouldered by African-Americans. No university today would even consider placing such an artifact on their campuses.”

Folt said she hopes officials will get a better chance to explore off-campus sites for Silent Sam, noting that the Board of Trustees wasn’t authorized to consult with the North Carolina Historical Commission, which has the final say for the location and treatment of Confederate monuments across the state.

“This was the stated and strong preference that the Board of Trustees and I made in our proposed plan because we learned from our analyses that relocating off campus, for example to the North Carolina Museum of History, was the best way to ensure the safety and security of our people and campus and was more feasible and cost-effective,” she said.

Smith said moving Silent Sam off campus would likely require a change in state law, but it would be up to the new committee to pursue that possibility.

“The group will have to decide if that’s indeed a path they want to go down, and if that’s so, then they’ll make the decision whether to engage with lawmakers in Raleigh and have the conversation and see if they can get traction on that,” he said.

Before the board rejected the plan for a new building, a group of protesters gathered in the rain Friday morning to demonstrate against it, saying they don’t want Silent Sam anywhere on campus.

“I don’t want it go up anywhere, but if it has to go somewhere, it should never be reinstalled in a center of learning because learning can’t happen in an environment of hate,” said Lora Cohen-Vogel, the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Associate Professor of Policy and Education Reform in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

“They hide behind the law and say that they were unable to remove the statue from campus. At some point, take a moral stand and say it’s wrong to celebrate racism, that it’s wrong to celebrate white supremacy,” Chapel Hill resident Anna Richards said.

Joseph Karlik was arrested during the protest on a charge of resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer during the morning protest. He also was arrested during a September protest about Silent Sam.

In a related matter, the Board of Governors voted to review existing policies on student, faculty and staff conduct and propose changes to set clear expectations for conduct, provide for disciplinary review and lay out sanctions, from suspension to expulsion or firing, for anybody engaging unlawful activity that affects public safety.

Silent Sam has been the site of protests for more than a year, even after it was toppled, and numerous people have faced criminal charges in connection with their actions during the demonstrations.

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