UNC faculty hopes to advise on Silent Sam, but it’s unclear exactly how much

The rise and fall of Silent Sam

Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.
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Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.

A UNC-Chapel Hill administrator said Friday he doesn’t know how or even whether campus officials will be involved in determining the fate of the toppled Silent Sam Confederate statue.

The UNC Faculty Council — the elected faculty body at the Chapel Hill campus — passed a resolution to form a committee that “shall be included by the university administration in all planning” for the ultimate disposition of the statue. It’s unclear whether the faculty advisory panel will have a formal function, or any sway, over what happens, despite the resolution’s insistence.

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin told the assembled professors that he and Chancellor Carol Folt have received no directions yet about what’s next, following last month’s appointment of a special UNC Board of Governors committee tasked with developing a plan for the monument by March 15.

“It has not been identified exactly what our role is in this task force,” Blouin said. “At least as of right now, we don’t have formal standing on the task force.”

Blouin said the holidays may have stalled the progress a bit, and he and Folt are awaiting instructions “as to how we can be helpful moving forward with that process,” adding, “The Board of Governors, at least for the time being, owns this process now.”

Several faculty members said the campus should make its desire for engagement clear to the Board of Governors committee, citing a broader sense of UNC’s “ownership” by the faculty and students.

The UNC Board of Governors did not approve a Board of Trustees plan for a $5.3 million building to house Silent Sam. They instead voted on Friday to task the BOT and select BOG members with creating a new plan by March 15, 2019.

“I’m disappointed to hear that in the month since the Board of Governors made this decision, they have not deigned to communicate to you or the chancellor what they have in mind. That to me, in addition to all of the issues ... just seems like colossally bad organizational management,” said Ed Fisher, professor in the School of Public Health. “I’m wondering if there are ways that we as a faculty and as the administration, with respect and politeness, can be more assertive in suggesting to them what role we would like to have in their deliberations.”

Folt was not at the meeting, but Faculty Chair Leslie Parise told faculty that “she is on our side on this,” and is attempting to “thread a needle.”

“She puts 150 percent effort in to try to move this campus forward in so many ways,” Parise added.

The council passed a resolution last year echoing a statement by black professors who want the statue and its pedestal moved off the campus permanently.

A crowd of protesters pull down the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina Monday night, Aug. 20, 2018.

Harry Watson, a history professor, said there needs to be an inclusive process if any future recommendation is to be accepted by students and others. “We’re not going to achieve any kind of peace on this issue without some form of workable community consensus on what the outcome is,” Watson said.

He said the faculty and administration should reach out to the Board of Governors and advocate that “students be systematically involved in the discussions.”

Parise said she was “a tad” more optimistic about where the Silent Sam discussion is heading. “I really do think we’re turning a corner on this,” she said.

Parise will appoint members to the advisory committee in the next week or two after nominations have been made.

Other campus discussions this week have been rocky.

Graduate students who have led some of the Silent Sam protests have called for a boycott of a series of departmental meetings between graduate students and Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Guskiewicz has said he wants to talk with students about their stipend pay and improving their situations.

The meetings were launched after a group of grad students threatened to withhold their students’ grades late last year after Folt and the Chapel Hill trustees proposed a $5.3 million history center on campus that would house Silent Sam. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Governors rejected the proposal for the new center.

Two people on opposite sides of the Silent Sam issue - UNC student Tarik Woods and Sons of Confederate Veterans member Bill Starnes - sit down to discuss their views on the controversial Confederate statue.

On Thursday afternoon, signs were posted outside the dean’s meetings asking students not to go in. A group of students held placards, and a few took signs into a meeting of the history and political science department.

Lindsay Ayling, a doctoral student in history, was among those urging the boycott. She listed a series of attempts by students for months to engage with administrators on the Silent Sam issue, to no avail. She called the talk of higher stipend amounts to “a bribe.”

“Because the administration does not respond to our arguments, we have to put pressure on them through disruptive tactics,” she said. “This is another disruptive tactic just to say that we don’t believe that they’re actually listening to us.”

The meeting Thursday afternoon was sparsely attended. One participant left the meeting and told protesters they should not be intimidating other students.

Blouin praised Guskiewicz on Friday for his effort to talk to students in small meetings. “He has really done an incredible job of reaching out and trying his best to listen to a lot of the graduate students and those who have concerns well beyond the single issue of the Confederate monument.”

A planned event on campus by a Confederate heritage group on Sunday has been canceled by the group, Blouin told the faculty. The weather forecast may have played a role in that, he said.

On Monday, the UNC Board of Trustees recommended building a historical center on campus to house Silent Sam. The building is estimated to cost $5.3 million.

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
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