UNC board members criticize leaders’ handling of Silent Sam statue

In a sharply critical letter, 15 members of the UNC Board of Governors scolded UNC President Margaret Spellings and Board Chair Lou Bissette for their handling of issues around the Silent Sam Confederate statue last month.

The members, who represent a majority of the 28-member board, said they should have been consulted before Spellings, Bissette and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper the day before a huge protest Aug. 22 at the monument at UNC. The UNC leaders asked Cooper for state help with security because campus police feared a potentially dangerous confrontation at the protest. They also requested that the governor convene the N.C. Historical Commission to take up the question of what to do with the statue.

The 15 board members said that request was a “wholly unacceptable” unilateral decision by Spellings and Bissette. They said the letter to the governor should have been reviewed and approved by the entire board, instead of only the board’s committee chairs. They said they would not have given their approval to send the letter to Cooper.

“The letter exuded a weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the Board’s opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated,” said the letter, which was emailed Aug. 22 by board member Tom Fetzer, a lobbyist and former mayor of Raleigh.

“We would have preferred a strong statement from each of you to the Chancellors, with the expectation that the Chancellors, in turn, would communicate the message to their campuses, that while our campuses have long been a hospitable forum and meeting place for the peaceful dissemination of contrasting views, lawlessness, vandalism, and violence will not be tolerated and will be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” the letter added.

The 15 members also complained of what they termed Cooper’s “political manipulation of the situation,” which they said “escalated the potential for unrest and violence.”

The board is overwhelmingly Republican; Cooper is a Democrat.

Cooper had responded to Spellings, Folt, Bissette and UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Chair Haywood Cochrane, telling them that they could remove the statue under a public safety exception in the 2015 law that prevents historic monuments from being moved or altered. University lawyers disagreed with Cooper’s interpretation of the law; the university said it did not have the authority to take down the statue.

The board members’ letter, which was obtained by The News & Observer, was signed by Harry Smith, Jim Holmes, Marty Kotis, David Powers, Alex Mitchell, Philip Byers, Mike Williford, Thom Goolsby, Pearl Burris-Floyd, Wendy Murphy, Bob Rucho, Randy Ramsey, Kellie Blue, Tom Fetzer and Bill Webb. Five of the signers, including Fetzer, just joined the board in July.

The letter asserted that Spellings’ and Bissette’s strategy “backfired,” citing news stories about the back-and-forth with Cooper. “All of which could have been avoided if you had sought our advice and counsel first – as we believe it is your duty to do,” the 15 members wrote.

The campus protest, which included a heavy police presence, was peaceful. There were a few arrests but no injuries.

Spellings and Bissette responded to the critical letter by explaining that they were acting in the best interest of students’ safety in an urgent situation, following deadly events in Charlottesville, Va.

They cited a letter from UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken, who wrote to Folt and said that Silent Sam, the only Confederate statue on a UNC campus, puts the university in a dangerous position. “It is only a matter of time before an attempt is made to topple Silent Sam,” McCracken wrote, adding that students could be seriously injured or caught between factions intent on violence.

“When we learned over the weekend of the growing threat to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and community, specifically the Silent Sam statue, we convened the Board’s seven committee chairs to discuss the situation,” Spellings and Bissette wrote in their response to the 15 members. “With a 28-member Board, it is essential that we use our formal committee processes and Board leaders to garner advice and counsel – and this was certainly such a time.”

They promised that they would take time at the board’s meetings this week to discuss ways to improve communication with all board members.

Besides dissatisfaction with the Silent Sam issue, the letter mentioned a lack of information sent to the board about the Aug. 19 killing of a 5-year-old boy at UNC’s married student housing, in a case of domestic violence. Board members complained they learned about it in the media.

They also said they have not been adequately apprised of ongoing financial challenges at Elizabeth City State University.

Such concerns about communication have been expressed repeatedly by a few board members.

The letter by the 15 members highlights the political sensitivity around Confederate statues and the divisions within the university system’s governing board. Faculty leaders and former board members have said some board members are too beholden to the legislators that appointed them. And a consultant last year found that there was too much mistrust within the system and that board members were getting out of their “swim lanes.”

In July, the head of the universities’ accrediting organization appeared before the board for a rare tutorial on how university boards should operate. She cautioned board members against micromanaging, disregarding faculty authority or being unduly influenced by political forces.

Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, became the UNC president last year after the board ousted the former president, Tom Ross, a Democrat.

The latest internal spat comes at a time when the board is due to make high-profile decisions, including one this week. On Friday, the board will vote on a controversial proposal that would prevent the UNC Center for Civil Rights, a part of UNC’s law school, from filing legal claims. If the ban passes, the center could fold or break away from the university.

In their response to the dissatisfied board members, Spellings and Bissette emphasized the complexity of the UNC system, with its 230,000 students and $10 billion budget.

“Above all, we want to enable every North Carolinian access to a world-class educational experience in order to allow them to fulfill their dreams,” they wrote. “As University leaders, we are entrusted with an important role in fulfilling these duties, and each of us strives to fulfill those duties every single day, often under trying conditions and with great urgency.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill