Carol Folt did some toppling of her own Monday. In a burst of surprising leadership, the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor ordered the pedestal that once held Silent Sam to be removed from its campus spot. She also stepped down before the UNC Board of Governors could wave goodbye first.
It was an act of defiance that many on campus feel was overdue from Folt. It also was a departure that leaves UNC without a Chapel Hill chancellor or permanent system president, and with a board of governors that made life difficult for each.
Perhaps most of all, Folt’s decision was an acknowledgment of what we’ve long known about the Silent Sam controversy: There is likely no middle ground. Folt had tried to craft a compromise location for Sam, but as many have long understood about civil rights — and simply what is right — there is little room for compromising. There is only declaring what side you come down on.
The protesters who toppled Silent Sam back in August knew that. In a way, Folt’s decision Monday was similar to their act of civil disobedience. She knows her bosses on the conservative Board of Governors want Silent Sam to stand again, but she decided that that not only would be untenable on any campus she leads, but wrong for UNC even when she’s gone.
As with any form of disobedience, however, there is a price. Folt decided to pay it in advance.
That leaves UNC at a critical moment, without a permanent system president or chancellor on its flagship campus. Both Folt and Margaret Spellings, who announced in October she was resigned as UNC president, were capable administrators, but both spent too much time parrying a politicized board that was unable to stick to traditional board roles such as strategy and financial oversight. Will that same board be able to recruit dynamic leaders who can restore the once-spotless reputation that made UNC the envy of other state systems? Does the board even want that type of leader?
We’ll likely see clues in the coming days. If board members insist on finding a place on campus for Silent Sam — against the wishes of students, faculty, trustees and a now lame-duck chancellor — we will know they continue to value micromanaging and disruptive politics over stable leadership and system health. Prospective chancellors and presidents will know the same.
We’re not encouraged by the board’s response Monday — a statement saying Folt’s unauthorized decision on the pedestal “undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity.” That’s often the first line of defense for the status quo — that if people go about asking for change the appropriate way, maybe it will come. But too often, change needs more of a nudge.
On Monday, Folt decided she would deliver that to the Board of Governors. Maybe she resigned because she knew she was going to be fired for her decision. Maybe she waited to make that decision until she was ready to resign. That they came together, however, is a sign she knew the career implications of taking such a stand. It was the right declaration for Carol Folt to make, but it’s a bad sign indeed for UNC.