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As the Silent Sam debate rages on at UNC, donors want their say

Board of Governors rejects Board of Trustees plan for Silent Sam

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.
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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.

Some young alumni are threatening to withhold donations from UNC-Chapel Hill until Silent Sam is gone for good. It’s an attempt to influence the looming decision about what to do with the disputed Confederate statue.

A letter signed by more than 2,200 people was sent to the UNC administration last week, specifically referencing a $5.3 million proposal to build a history center that was to house the toppled monument. That plan is now dead, having been rejected Friday by the UNC system Board of Governors. A five-member committee was appointed to work with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and campus trustees on a new proposal, due in March.

The recent petition included signatures primarily from current students, employees and alumni who graduated in the past decade. The letter said the signers would withhold all financial contributions “until a plan is adopted that permanently removes Silent Sam from campus.”

It further accused campus leaders of prioritizing “the bigotry of a small number of major donors and right-wing politicians” in developing the history center proposal.

The petition was pushed by 2011 alumna Leah Josephson, who is co-chair of the Carolina Club in Ann Arbor, Mich. Supporters were asked to instead send their donations to a legal fund for the demonstrators who have been arrested in Silent Sam protests. The “Anti-Racist Activist Fund” fund-raising website had raised more than $19,000 as of Wednesday.

“I felt like the amount of money that had been proposed for this shrine to Silent Sam was so outrageous, and I wasn’t sure what could be done from far away,” she said.

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.

She circulated the letter among her networks and other alumni and within a week more than 2,000 had signed on to it. “People seemed excited to be able to do something related to their philanthropic priorities and their feelings about the financial future of the university,” she said.

The letter is one effort aimed at pressuring administrators to place the statue somewhere off campus. Other individuals have told UNC they refuse to financially support the university unless the statue is returned to campus, according to emails released this week in response to the public records request from The News & Observer.

A flurry of UNC alumni have said on Twitter that they would direct their donations instead to Bennett College in Greensboro, the historically black women’s college that faces possible closure due to financial difficulties and a loss of accreditation. One woman referred to the group as the “Save Bennett not Silent Sam” donors.

David Routh, the university’s vice chancellor for development, said he had reached out to Josephson in hopes of discussing the issue. That’s part of the debate at a public university, he said.

“Everybody wants, and actually quite frankly deserves, to have their voice in an issue,” Routh said. “When you’ve got an issue as complex and layered and hard as this one, I’ve learned to expect that and it’s really OK.”

Routh said he’s watching alumni sentiment carefully.

The university is in the midst of a five-year, $4.25 billion fund-raising drive, called “For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina,” and recently reached the halfway dollar mark. The total for this fiscal year is running slightly behind last year, Routh said, but that is to be expected a year after the public launch of the drive.

“Both years were extraordinary,” Routh said. “I can’t tell yet that there’s been a big, significant effect on private support.”

Opponents of Silent Sam gathered outside the Center for School Leadership Development at UNC before the Board of Governors meeting Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

Several multimillion-dollar donations were announced this fall. According to a report Routh presented to trustees in November, gifts in the pipeline as of Nov. 1 measured $1.007 billion, compared to $1.303 billion in fiscal 2018.

Josephson, a 2011 UNC graduate who recently finished a graduate degree at the University of Michigan, said political campaigns have gained traction from young donors collectively, and the boycott petition represents not only current giving but future giving.

“When I look at the list of names, a lot of them I went to school with,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of tech entrepreneurs and surgeons and future high-powered attorneys on that list -- folks who aren’t giving a lot now as we’re in our late 20s. Their lifetime giving potential is significant.”

She said young alumni have been a part of the public conversation about Silent Sam in recent years, but added, “People of all ages can recognize that Silent Sam needs to go.”

Routh said he’s noticed that some donors have evolved on their feelings about the monument after learning more about the history of it and its dedication during the Jim Crow era. The passion about the issue is not as intense, he said, at alumni events outside North Carolina.

“Younger alums are quick to conclude, ‘we need to move on and not be talking about this forever,’” Routh said. “There are definitely generational divides and some geographic differences for sure.”

The University of Virginia has weathered similar emotional reaction from alumni following the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, Routh said. After that event, he added, many felt it was only a matter of time until the Silent Sam issue came to a head in Chapel Hill.

He pointed out that UCLA is celebrating 100 years of history, compared to UNC’s 225 years. Some campuses don’t have to deal with the painful remnants of slavery and the Civil War.

Routh said he welcomed all views in the discussion.

“I’m thrilled that people care enough to want to be actively engaged in the conversation,” Routh said. “I really believe at the end of the day, that’s good for any university. It’s good for our university.”

Josephson said she expects to see more activism in the days ahead.

“It’s just getting started and people are really working together,” she said.

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.

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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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