UNC will ‘do everything in our power’ to ensure safety, chancellor says

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt provided no details about what’s next for the Silent Sam Confederate monument, but said the university is doing everything it can to keep the campus safe in the aftermath of Monday’s protest.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Folt declined to discuss the question on everyone’s minds — whether the statue will be reinstalled on its pedestal at the main gateway to campus. She said it would be too early, and irresponsible, to comment on that now.

“I can’t speculate right now on what, exactly, will be done,” she said.

Folt acknowledged that the statue had engendered strong feelings for years before it tumbled to the ground at the hands of protesters Monday.

“That Confederate monument has been a flashpoint and a divisive symbol for decades, and especially since Charlottesville, has been the focus of increasing frustration, anxiety and pain for people,” she said.

But Folt added, “No matter what you felt about the monument, what happened on Monday night was destruction of state property, and that is not lawful, and someone could have been badly injured. Using the full breadth of state and university processes, we will do our best to identify, and will hold those responsible accountable.”

She declined to discuss the progress of the investigation of the protest, or a planned review of police response at the rally that ended with the toppling of Silent Sam.

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Demonstrators and spectators gather around a toppled Confederate statue known as Silent Sam Monday night at UNC. Julia Wall

The handling of the protest by the university and its police force has been questioned by many on social media. On Wednesday, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said the board would hire an outside firm to examine police actions. Only one arrest was made at the protest, and in contrast to last year’s large demonstration, no barriers were erected around the monument this time.

Folt said the university expected Monday night to be a small and peaceful protest. “We had no anticipation of any plans to tear down the statue,” she said. “Our belief was that it was going to be an event of about 100 people in support of one of our students.”

The protest had been billed as a rally in support of Maya Little, the graduate student who faces criminal and honor court charges after an April incident where she poured red ink and blood on the statue in protest.

Folt said police usually do a post-mortem after large events, and Monday’s demonstration is no exception.

Safety is paramount now, Folt said, as the university monitors social media and prepares for more demonstrations that could happen, including the possibility of one this weekend. She said UNC will “do everything in our power” to ensure peaceful and safe protests.

“We will not relax our vigilance in any way,” she said.

UNC has had more than 35 protests in the last few years, she said, and they had been handled without injuries. Folt thanked officers, saying, “They are well-trained professionals and they know and care deeply for our students.”

Folt said she was not involved in directing police on Monday night. “I wasn’t giving any orders, nor do I ever try to tell the police how to deal with these sorts of situations,” she said.

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UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt Jill Knight News & Observer file photo

Folt, the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors have maintained for the past year that they did not have the power to relocate Silent Sam because of a 2015 state law that prohibits altering historic monuments.

But critics have said the university’s lack of action, in the face of growing calls to remove the statue, made Monday’s take down of Silent Sam inevitable.

On Thursday, a letter to the editor published on The News & Observer’s website was signed by 42 faculty members who said there was a lack of leadership on the issue from university administrators. “They dodged,” the letter said.

“The time is now for the university administration to show leadership, not bureaucratic obfuscation,” the letter said. “Show us that you and the university do indeed stand for Lux et Libertas, not sustaining and enforcing the symbols of human cruelty.”

A year ago, Gov. Roy Cooper, in a response to Folt and other university leaders, said a safety exception in the law allowed them to relocate the monument. But university lawyers disagreed, and a majority of UNC Board of Governors members objected because they weren’t involved in that discussion.

Folt said the more than two-year effort to tell the “true story” of the university’s history will proceed. A task force had been planning new signs and interactive tours that would provide further context about Silent Sam’s 1913 beginning during the Jim Crow era.

Folt stressed that the university, its students, faculty and large health care operations are going about business as usual, and that leaders haven’t lost sight of its mission.

“This is a beautiful, safe campus that is thriving right now,” she said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill