Past officials of North Carolina’s public universities haven’t always been comfortable with student protests, but they’ve recognized the need for college students to exercise their freedom of speech, and they’ve seen as well that such protests sometimes can help push the university in a direction it needs to go.
John T. Caldwell, the late, legendary chancellor of N.C. State, once invited student protesters into his home. William Friday and Bill Aycock, then president of the UNC system and chancellor at Chapel Hill, respectively, recognized the foolishness in the infamous Speaker Ban Law of the early 1960s. They knew members of the General Assembly would have preferred they and students stood silent. So they did the opposite, and that ridiculous law fell under the sword of the courts.
Unfortunately, leaders of UNC-Chapel Hill apparently are inclined to show no such gumption, and their timid approach to the controversy over the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument is very disappointing. The office of Chancellor Carol Folt cites a recent law limiting an agency or institution from removing monuments or the like from public property without going through a difficult administrative process. Gov. Roy Cooper did show political courage by informing UNC officials they could remove Silent Sam, which has been the focus of protests connected to the now-infamous demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., if they felt public safety was at stake.
Now activists protesting the statue claim that the university’s police installed one of their own, undercover, to spy on protesters. That would be an outrageous overreach by the university, and Folt should stand against any such actions by the university police force, period.
Protesters sounding off against Silent Sam – which was dedicated in 1913 with a speech by a prominent businessman, Julian Carr, recalling how he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern Lady” – aren’t communists trying to overthrow the government. They’re mostly teachers and students who find the prominent presence of a monument to the Confederacy woefully outdated and offensive to the university’s African-American students and faculty, and all citizens for that matter.
Instead of wasting time and resources trying to stem protests, the university should be moving ahead to take down the monument and face whatever threats conservative lawmakers or some university alums might care to make. It’s true, to be fair, that Folt’s feeling pressure from all sides here, and Republican lawmakers aren’t subtle in their feelings about the university’s liberal leanings. And yes, she might believe there’s a legitimate legal issue here.
But if there are sentiments in the administration or the police force that trying to intimidate protesters with informants, spying on the university’s own students and teachers, for goodness sakes, is going to stem protest, it’s sadly mistaken. If anything, the alleged discovery of this bit of clumsy spying will only encourage activists to carry on with their cause. That’s good.