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UNC faculty seek voice in Silent Sam’s future as teaching assistants’ strike grows

Protesters march and call for professors to strike against BOT recommendation for Silent Sam

Several hundred people protested in Chapel Hill on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, to oppose the recommendation made by the UNC Board of Trustees to build a new $5.3 million building on campus for the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.
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Several hundred people protested in Chapel Hill on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, to oppose the recommendation made by the UNC Board of Trustees to build a new $5.3 million building on campus for the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.

A faculty group called Friday for UNC leaders to drop a plan to keep the Silent Sam Confederate statue on campus and asked that a faculty committee be included in any future planning for the statue.

The UNC Faculty Council also recommended, in a separate resolution, that the Faculty Council appoint a committee to weigh in on the statue’s future.

“We have a desperate need for moral leadership from the top that will have the courage to break an unjust law and say [enough], and take the risks that that involves,” said Harry Watson, a UNC professor specializing in Southern history.

The meeting came as a growing strike involving UNC teaching assistants and instructors threatened to withhold thousands of students’ final grades from the administration.

At least 79 teaching assistants and instructors have joined the strike to protest UNC’s proposed $5.3 million history center to house the Silent Sam Confederate statue, activist leaders posted online Friday morning.

Nearly 2,200 grades and counting will not be released until the UNC Board of Trustees withdraws the plan and the governing board of the UNC system holds “listening sessions in good faith with the campus community,” activists said.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Robert Blouin, provost of the College of Arts and Sciences, were interrupted several times during the Faculty Council’s overflow meeting Friday.

UNC junior Angum Check stood in the back of the room, holding up a cardboard sign that read: “Carol Folt is the moderate MLK warned us about more devoted to order than justice.”

Check, co-chair of the UNC Black Congress, and other students then took the front of the room and began to read from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 letter written from the Birmingham, Alabama, jail.

In the letter, King describes two types of laws: just and unjust laws, which is “no law at all,” and recognizes the moderate voices of his movement that supported social justice but not the methods used.

Check, turning to Folt, asked about an appendix to Monday’s Silent Sam report that suggested forming a 40-member systemwide police force to meet future civil disobedience on campus. She also noted the many black students who live near the former Odum Village site on south campus identified as a possible home for the history center.

The center could attract white supremacists and Confederate supporters who might pose a threat to those students, she said. If UNC cares about student safety, the statue needs to leave campus, she said.

“You want to further militarize the police to squash us and to brutalize us,” Check said. ”You handed me the MLK Award this year, and I want to tell you, you are a disgrace. Never hand out an MLK Award ever again.”

Edwin Fisher, a School of Public Health professor, said he thinks the administration is sincere but is “failing to recognize the sea change in your front yard.” Until the students interrupted the council’s meeting, Fisher said he “was sitting here in utter disbelief” that Folt and other officials had not changed their statements since Monday.

“There seems to be a fundamental failure here to understand the pain, the suffering, the affront, the assault on people that has been perpetrated by the statue, that has been perpetrated by the actions that the statue sought to justify,” Fisher said. “Unfortunately, it is still being perpetrated by the business-as-usual of the proposal that has been brought forward.”

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved the Silent Sam plan Monday, with two members dissenting. The plan calls for completing the university history center by 2022. Folt has said the university will seek state funding to build the center, which could cost an additional $800,000 a year to operate.

Folt and several trustees said they would prefer to house Silent Sam, which was torn down by protesters in August, at an off-campus site. But they said that would not comply with a state law on preserving historic monuments.

“Maybe you don’t have to have the artifact there, but there is all the stories … every word every one person has said here needs to be there for all time,” Folt said Friday. “Maybe it doesn’t look like that’s what we want, but that is absolutely what the center is supposed to do, because if you don’t tell those stories, they don’t go on any further.”

The UNC system Board of Governors will consider the plan Dec. 14. The N.C. Historical Commission also must approve the plan.

At least one Board of Governors member, Thom Goolsby, has advocated for returning the statue to its base on McCorkle Place. He called the trustees’ plan “sheer cowardice” in a video statement released this week

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Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Monday night to protest the decision, as graduate student activist Maya Little called for UNC’s teaching assistants to strike.

The movement has been growing, with activist groups and students at other colleges voicing support. Student activists have said the teaching assistants will withhold students’ grades from the university until the Silent Sam plan is withdrawn.

Even if grades are released, they said, the protest will continue into the spring semester and until additional demands are met:

The Confederate statue and its base are permanently removed from campus.

The Board of Trustees discloses the “necessary changes” identified for UNC police in the appendix from a panel of national security experts. The panel recommended UNC add a “mobile force platoon” to assist UNC police and that the UNC system create a separate mobile police force at a cost of $2 million a year.

UNC withdraws its plan to increase student fees to pay for building maintenance, and invest the money that might pay for the new center, its upkeep and a proposed increase in policing funding in building maintenance, higher wages for graduate and campus workers, eliminating graduate student fees, dental insurance for graduate students and reduced parking fees for all workers.

Graduate students and instructors expressed the same demands early Friday in a meeting called by Blouin and Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, according to #StrikeDownSam Twitter posts.

In a letter requesting the meeting, the men warned that instructors who fail to release final grades expose the university to lawsuits and threaten students’ ability to graduate and get military commissions, scholarships, grants, loans, jobs and extended visas.

The letter, posted to Twitter, also warns instructors against using their role in the classroom to recruit student support for the strike. Students and parents have complained to the university, Guskiewicz and Blouin said.

“Such actions have been interpreted as coercion and an exploitation of the teacher-student relationship and in fact are a violation of students’ First Amendment rights as well as federal law,” they said.

“We trust that our instructors will not act in a way that harms the interests of students and their families, and that these instructors meet the legal, ethical and moral responsibilities for which they have been contracted. Please consider that your failure to meet your responsibilities to your students, including timely submission of final grades, will result in serious consequences.”

A Dec. 5 letter signed by 24 UNC School of Education faculty and staff noted the statue’s “continuing presence on our campus is contrary to our School’s commitment to the transformative power of education.”

“As educators, we have an obligation to continue the work of dismantling systemic racism in our schools, on our college campuses, and in our democratic society,” the School of Education letter said.

Science education professor Eileen Parsons talked Friday about the pain she felt as a black student, alumna and professor seeing the statue on campus.

“For it to be re erected at this point and time inflicts greater pain, greater physical pain, psychological pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain,” Parsons said. “The fact that people are not humane enough to understand that in the decision-making is just incomprehensible to me.”

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School of Education faculty and staff also pledged their support for the strike.

“Specifically, we discourage and oppose any retaliatory actions the university or system office may take against those faculty and graduate student teaching assistants who decide to participate in this action,” the statement said.

If the Board of Governors approves the plan, it says, the faculty said they will not teach the first week of spring semester classes. Instead, they will organize sessions across the campus to listen to students and “develop strategies to help UNC live up to its founding principles of ‘light and liberty.’”

Hundreds of faculty members, including UNC Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser, have signed statements supporting Silent Sam’s removal from campus. Multiple student groups, including UNC Black Congress and the Campus Y, also have voiced their support.

Monday’s protest was the fifth held since Aug. 20, when protesters pulled the statue from its base, and the most heated yet between protesters and police.

Students and community supporters have said they do not feel safe with police on campus and accused police of favorable treatment toward the statue’s supporters. They have demanded a meeting with UNC campus and police officials but have not gotten a response.

UNC officials also have not answered many media questions about the police response or the panel’s recommendations for special campus and systemwide police units to handle future civil unrest and violence.

Law enforcement officials have said the recommendation for a “mobile platoon” to support UNC Police sounds similar to a Greensboro Police Department Civil Emergency Unit that helped with the Aug. 30 protest.

The Greensboro unit has come under fire for what demonstrators have called heavy-handed tactics, including using bikes to corral and move the crowd and deploying pepper spray on protesters and journalists.

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.

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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