Gov. Cooper on removing Silent Sam: ‘I want to help in any way I can’

Protesters silently crash UNC University Day ceremony

Several dozen protesters held small signs demanding the removal of the Confederate 'Silent Sam' statue from the UNC campus as the university held its annual University Day ceremony in Chapel Hill on Oct. 12, 2017. Governor Roy Cooper and UNC Chan
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Several dozen protesters held small signs demanding the removal of the Confederate 'Silent Sam' statue from the UNC campus as the university held its annual University Day ceremony in Chapel Hill on Oct. 12, 2017. Governor Roy Cooper and UNC Chan

Gov. Roy Cooper gave a shout out to student protesters Thursday during UNC-Chapel Hill’s 224th birthday celebration.

In his keynote address on University Day in Chapel Hill, Cooper offered a list of his dreams, he said, “as an optimistic alumnus.”

“I dream of students who are engaged in the world around them and who burn to make it better,” he said. “Who help solve problems. Who protest and who vote.”

Earlier, about 30 protesters in the audience had made their presence known by holding up signs that spelled out “Silence Sam,” a reference to the Confederate monument that many students want to see moved from a prominent location on campus.

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A security agent, right, removes several dozen protesters who were holding small signs demanding that the Silent Sam statue of a Confederate soldier on campus be taken down as UNC held its annual University Day ceremony at Memorial Hall on the campus in Chapel Hill. Chris Seward

In a brief interview after his speech, Cooper spoke about the Silent Sam controversy. He has petitioned the state historical commission to relocate other Confederate statues from state grounds to Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County.

“I know that there are a lot of people of goodwill here at the university who want to do the same thing,” Cooper said. “I want to help in any way I can.”

He didn’t elaborate on where that effort stands, but said, “students should be engaged and involved, and should let their feelings be known about this.”

Previously, Cooper’s office confirmed that the UNC system office had declined when he offered to include Silent Sam in a petition to the historical commission.

Originally, Cooper and the university had been at odds over the issue. In August, UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt wrote to Cooper, asking him to petition the commission because they were concerned about student safety before a large protest. He responded by telling them they could remove the statue, citing a public safety loophole in the 2015 law that prevents the alteration of historic monuments. But UNC leaders said the law does not give them the authority.

Meanwhile a majority of the UNC system’s Board of Governors expressed displeasure about the communications between the university leaders and Cooper, and there is no current effort to move the statue, despite ongoing protests and calls from many faculty and students to relocate it. Folt, too, has said she thinks the monument needs to be moved.

Thursday’s event featured pomp, music and awards for several distinguished alumni. Folt announced that a one-year challenge fundraiser had brought in more that $65 million to support two signature scholarship programs – the Carolina Covenant and the Morehead-Cain scholarships.

Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.

A year ago on University Day, Folt had announced the challenge, which was prompted by a $20 million gift to the scholarship programs from an anonymous donor. UNC set out to double that pledge, but in the end more than tripled it.

It will count toward the university’s effort to raise $4.25 billion by the end of 2022. The campaign was announced last week.

Cooper urged University Day participants to get out their checkbooks. And he extended that to the legislature.

The university’s impact on the state should make North Carolina proud, he said, “but we cannot sit back and expect it to keep on happening if we do not insist on significant investments in this university. Everyone here must push our state leaders, including the legislature, for increased funding, not only here, but in all of public education.”

Cooper suggested that North Carolina can be in the top 10 states in the country with the most educated citizens. That education is not only about getting a job, he added.

“This university is second to none in preparing students to make a career and to make a living,” Cooper said. “But what is so special about this place, is that it encourages students to discover what it is to make a life. A life of purpose.”

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus known as 'Silent Sam' was a point of friction and protest long before becoming part of the national conversation. Here's a look at the monument's history.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill