Now 15 members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors have criticized in a letter UNC system President Margaret Spellings, Board of Governors Chair Lou Bissette and by implication UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt over the recent controversy about the Silent Sam Confederate memorial statue on the Chapel Hill campus. They’re framing their criticism as an issue of oversight, that the Board of Governors should have had to approve a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper seeking help with security because of concerns a possible confrontation between protesters and supporters of the statue might become dangerous.
The letter, which by the way was reviewed by the BOG’s committee chairs, was the right thing to do. And Cooper advised UNC leaders that they could remove the statue under a public safety exception to a ridiculous 2015 law that prevents historic monuments from being moved or altered. That law was nothing but a bow to the right-wing base of the Republican Party, which now dominates the UNC board.
The letter from these 15 was sent over email by, speaking of the Republican right wing, a BOG member, Tom Fetzer, who is a Republican lobbyist and former Raleigh mayor (and former state GOP leader). Fetzer and four other signers of the letter apparently believe they’ve learned quickly how to run the university system; they just joined the politically appointed board in July.
The notion that UNC leaders should have run this request to the governor past the entire BOG is preposterous. Safety was a concern before the Aug. 22 protest and they needed guidance.
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What’s really going on here, of course, is that it’s amateur hour on the Board of Governors. Hard partisan Republicans are in charge, and their main concern is putting their brand on the UNC system and continuing to stick it to Democrats as if they were in the General Assembly, which some of them were. And Cooper is a Democrat, which is all they see. Not that he was a state senator or attorney general. Just that he is a Democrat.
If Fetzer and other Republicans want to position themselves as champions of Silent Sam, then why don’t they have the courage to say so, instead of sending a letter such as this an an attempt to scold and intimidate UNC leaders? They’re always looking, of course, for a chance to attack the university’s liberal faculty and its traditions, and in Spellings they have a relatively new president unschooled in North Carolina politics and without the clout of some previous UNC presidents such as William Friday, C.D. Spangler and Erskine Bowles.
And though Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, has some conservative bona fides, some board members apparently aren’t satisfied with her reasoned, even-handed approach to her job and are looking for a reason to attack her.
In championing, or appearing to champion, a Confederate monument they’ve picked the wrong cause at the wrong time. Before and after the tragedy in Charlottesville, advocates of these monuments, which sprang up all over the South in the Jim Crow and white supremacist eras, have been on the losing end of the debate.
What these BOG members are doing is attempting to intimidate all UNC system chancellors along with Spellings and other leaders. For the sake of the university system, constituents of these institutions must hope they fail.