Education

Would UNC faculty actually tear down Silent Sam?

UNC alumni, students and faculty vocal in debate over Confederate monument “Silent Sam”

The UNC Board of Trustees listen to over two dozen speakers as they weigh whether or not to remove the controversial statue of a Confederate soldier from campus.
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The UNC Board of Trustees listen to over two dozen speakers as they weigh whether or not to remove the controversial statue of a Confederate soldier from campus.

For months, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt has been on the receiving end of pressure from many who want to see the Silent Sam statue removed: student protesters, student government, academic departments, faculty leaders, a student-filed federal lawsuit and a growing chorus of critics on social media.

Add another, more mysterious player, to the mix: “G17,” a group that claims to be 17 senior faculty who are classified as distinguished or full professors.

Over the weekend, the anonymous group sent a letter to The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, a copy of a letter it had sent to Folt, threatening to take down the Confederate statue if it were not relocated by Thursday at midnight. The letter said removal of the Confederate monument was consistent with the university’s non-discrimination policy, adding that the university’s proudest moments have been when it was on the right side of history. The purported faculty members went on to say they did not fear arrest, and in fact, welcomed such a demonstration.

A UNC spokeswoman on Sunday confirmed that Folt had received the letter, but did not know the identity of the senders and had no way to confirm the letter’s authenticity.

On Monday, The Daily Tar Heel published a story saying it had confirmed that the group was legitimate, and that staffers had met with the unidentified professor leading it. By Tuesday, the “G17” had started a Twitter account and promised an update by halftime of the UNC-Miami men’s basketball game.

Then the group posted a message saying that it had received word from South Building, the chancellor’s headquarters, that Folt was preparing to ask Gov. Roy Cooper to petition the N.C. Historical Commission for an urgent ruling on whether the university can relocate the statue, on the grounds that it’s necessary to preserve the monument. The group said it would stand down, for now.

University officials debunked the group’s latest claim.

“We do not know who is behind these statements, and have not been in communication with any such group,” said UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny. “We don’t have anything new to share on the monument, and in fact Chancellor Folt has already been on the record many times saying she is concerned about public safety surrounding the monument, including in a letter to the Governor last fall. That position has not changed.”

The anonymous push follows a growing drumbeat for relocation of the statue.

In a video taken by a passerby on Aug. 15, 2017, a man takes a hammer to the face of the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A video from last summer recently surfaced showing a man beating the statue with a hammer. Last week, a rumored white nationalist rally prompted a warning to deans and department heads from the university, but it didn’t materialize. There was, however, a large counter-protest outside Folt’s office, and the rally then moved to Silent Sam. Some protesters in the crowd wore shirts that said, “Do It Like Durham,” a reference to last year’s incident when a Confederate statue downtown was toppled. Duke University also removed a Robert E. Lee bust from Duke Chapel last year after it was vandalized.

Since the anonymous letter emerged, faculty have taken to Facebook to parse it, casting doubt on its authenticity. They’ve pointed out that the original letter contained sentence fragments and wording that did not ring true. For example, the letter starts out “Dear Carol,” when faculty would more likely refer to her as “Chancellor Folt” in a formal letter. The document also calls the 17 group members “your senior faculty.” Professors don’t typically refer to themselves as belonging to a university leader.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about that as a way of trying to suss out whether this thing is real or not,” said Eric Muller, a UNC law professor and member of the Faculty Executive Committee who spoke as an individual faculty member. “I have to say I think that the weight of opinion that I was seeing was that it was probably a hoax, or that it was some other group.”

Then there’s the question of whether senior, distinguished faculty would actually attempt to tear down a solid statue.

“I said to a friend, ‘I have a very hard time picturing 17 of my colleagues, like, moving the refrigerator out of the faculty lounge,’ ” Muller said. “So the idea of 17 faculty members moving a multi-ton statue in the middle of the night seems a little bit hard to believe.”

Muller said that if the threat of physical action is real, “it’s the wrong way to proceed. I think it sets a bad example.” Further, he said, announcing action on a particular day would seem to incite trouble and endanger students and university police, sort of like an invitation to a brawl.

The law professor recently wrote an op-ed to The Daily Tar Heel, suggesting that there is a very simple and legal way to remove the statue. A 2015 state law that prevents alteration of historic monuments does include a provision that would enable the state historical commission to move a statue in order to preserve it. That, Muller pointed out, has not been a central argument in the months-long debate about what to do with Silent Sam.

Folt and UNC President Margaret Spellings have been on the receiving end of protests and anger from students, as well as pressure to keep the statue, from alumni, community members and UNC Board of Governors members. Both Spellings and Folt last year wrote to Cooper, saying they were worried about campus safety and asking him to approach the historical commission.

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.

Cooper has asked the commission to consider removing Confederate statues on state Capitol grounds. A public comment period is under way. But the UNC System office declined to include Silent Sam in Cooper’s petition last year, according to Cooper’s office.

In the past two months, four individuals submitted their own petitions to the commission asking it to take action on Silent Sam.

Folt has said she must follow state law, but has previously said the presence of Silent Sam is an ongoing problem for the campus.

“I do believe that as long as Silent Sam is in its current location, it runs the risk of continuing to drain energy and goodwill that we worked so hard to maintain on our campus,” she said, “and truly does distract us from reaching the important goals we all share.”

Some groups are cheering on “G17.”

Late Tuesday night, a group called “Move Silent Sam” posted a video of the Durham statue tumbling to the ground and wrote: “Everyone knows we’re reaching the boiling point with Silent Sam. The statue could be destroyed. People could be hurt in the process, or as a result of violence between protesters and counter-protesters. Chancellor Folt must realize what’s at stake. Everything.”

Meanwhile, the statue is under 24-hour video surveillance and it’s a good bet campus police will be watching it closely in the next two days.

“Everybody is just kind of perplexed,” Muller said, “and taking a kind of wait-and-see attitude about whether anything actually materializes.”

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.

Camila Molina contributed to this report.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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