Politics & Government

UNC faculty members, in letter to parents, support Silent Sam strike and withholding grades

Protesters march and call for professors to strike against BOT recommendation for Silent Sam

Several hundred people protested in Chapel Hill on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, to oppose the recommendation made by the UNC Board of Trustees to build a new $5.3 million building on campus for the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.
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Several hundred people protested in Chapel Hill on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, to oppose the recommendation made by the UNC Board of Trustees to build a new $5.3 million building on campus for the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.

More than 200 UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members have signed an open letter to students’ parents and guardians, asking them to support striking graduate student instructors and the permanent removal of the Silent Sam Confederate statue from campus.

“Please contact university leaders, including Chancellor Carol Folt, Provost Bob Blouin, and Chairman of the Board Haywood Cochrane Jr. to make your views known and request that Silent Sam and other Confederate statues not be allowed on our campus,” said the letter, issued just days before the UNC system Board of Governors could decide the statue’s fate.

As far as the proposed strike, the university so far has not “received any specific reports of grades not being submitted or observed any irregular activity,” UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said Wednesday.

Letters of support for those fighting Silent Sam kept coming in, however, including from former DaVanta Parker, president of the N.C. Central University Student Government Association. Park sent a letter to the UNC system Board of Governors on Tuesday backing UNC student activists.

“While we as a country and state have made great strides in disavowing white supremacy and ensuring equality for all, there is still much work to be done,” Parker said. “And this work includes the permanent removal of the Silent Sam statue, as well as addressing other problematic representations on campuses across the UNC System that reflect racism, bigotry and hatred.”

The letter is one of more than 20 statements released recently in support of the effort to keep Silent Sam off campus. A news release Wednesday afternoon noted that more than 800 UNC graduate students, faculty, current and former athletes, undergraduates and alumni and community members have signed letters of support, in addition to 565 faculty from universities nationwide.

On Monday, the UNC Board of Trustees recommended building a historical center on campus to house Silent Sam. The building is estimated to cost $5.3 million.

The N.C. State Conference of the American Association of University Professors, while it did not endorse the UNC faculty petition, told its members “we are following the issue closely and speaking out when the situation requires it.”

Folt and the Chapel Hill campus Board of Trustees have been criticized for a proposed $5.3 million university history center that also would house Silent Sam. The chosen site on South Campus also has drawn fire for being near student dorms, the Carolinas Veterans Resource Center and the Chapel Hill Kehillah Synagogue.

Rabbi Jennifer Feldman and members of the Kehillah Synagogue questioned the site in a letter Tuesday to UNC administrators, saying it “creates an immediate and lasting security threat for our congregation, staff members, building and property, as well as for the children who come to preschool here.”

The UNC system’s Board of Governors will consider the plan Friday morning at the Friday Center. The meeting will not include time for public comment, according to the Board of Governors website.

The UNC Faculty Council has petitioned the university twice — and backed petitions from African-American faculty, students and other groups — to remove the statue. On Friday, the council voted to appoint a representative committee and seek a role in planning the statue’s future.

UNC’s administrators ignored student and faculty pleas, the letter said, noting a strike that about 80 teaching assistants and instructors joined last week. The strike could delay final grades for more than 2,200 students, depending on the BOG’s vote.

If the BOG rejects the proposed center, the students’ grades will be released, according to multiple demands posted online last week.

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.

Other demands must be met to stop the protests, the SilenceSam.com post stated, including more details about a national security panel’s recommendations for enhancing UNC police capabilities and withdrawing a plan to increase student fees to pay for building maintenance.

The N.C. Historical Commission also must approve moving the statue. Folt has said the center, which could cost about $800,000 a year to operate, could be built, possibly with state money, by 2022.

The strike met with a swift warning from UNC officials that instructors who withhold grades could face “serious consequences.” The strike exposes the university to lawsuits, UNC College of Arts and Sciences leaders said, and could negatively affect students’ academic careers and futures.

Instructors also were warned against using their classroom role to recruit student support for the strike.

Some North Carolina residents, like Jay Schalin, with the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, have called for UNC to expel instructors who withhold grades and fire faculty who disrupt the campus in support of a strike. The instructors are blackmailing the university, Schalin argued in an online column Wednesday, and UNC officials should “call their bluff” or expect more problems in the future.

“When you not only disrupt your employer’s operations but deny the rights of clients (students) to what they have paid for and earned, then of course you should be sent packing,” he wrote. “The public universities should not be some special sanctuary where no repercussions are ever felt no matter how you behave.”

Schalin, in a phone interview, said the injury that activists say Silent Sam is causing is just emotional, but the potential harm to other students of withholding grades is very real. He doesn’t agree with spending taxpayer dollars to build the history center, but the school and the state have sought a civil solution, Schalin said.

”I think you’re either going to have to display Silent Sam somewhere on campus and anger the unruly mob, or take him off campus and anger the great majority of the people,” he said. “In this case, I’m saying let’s anger the unruly mob. It’s time they learn that being violent doesn’t work.”

UNC faculty argued in Monday’s letter that educators have an obligation to continue “dismantling systemic racism in our schools, on our college campuses, and in our democratic society.”

“At its core, educating is, quite simply, the process of facilitating learning. It is providing a learning environment in which everyone can participate. We take our responsibility for educating your children — our students — very seriously. It is what we have committed our professional lives to do,” faculty said.

Supporters of Silent Sam arrived at the monument's base on Saturday, September 8, 2018. They were met with a counter-protest organized as a potluck and canned food drive. Supporters were escorted out, and several arrests were made afterwards.

Keeping Silent Sam on campus, they added, may violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act guarantee of a discrimination-free educational environment.

“By failing to remove Silent Sam from our campus, university leaders are making it impossible for us to do our jobs,” faculty said. “They are forcing us to sacrifice Black students and others on our campus who feel intimidated in the face of explicit symbols of hate every single day.”

No matter what decision the Board of Governors makes on Friday, the protests already are slated to continue with an “Heirs To The Confederacy Prayer Service” from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at McCorkle Place. A social media post Wednesday noted a counterprotest could start at the university’s Winter Commencement ceremony, which begins at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Dean Smith Center.

UNC is aware of the planned protests, said Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk, but the university does not require or grant permits to assemble on campus.

“As a matter of protocol, UNC Police reach out to any group that is willing to work with them to learn their plans, develop a safety plan, including entrance and exit, and ensure that opposing groups have separate spaces,” Kemp said. “As we learned from the events in Charlottesville, one of the most effective ways of ensuring safety is to keep counter-protest groups separate.”

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this report.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.