Politics & Government

Interim UNC system president says Silent Sam should not return to its original spot

Hear UNC Interim President Dr. Bill Roper’s comments on Silent Sam

Roper addresses the media following his first UNC Board of Governors meeting on Friday, January 25, 2019 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Roper addresses the media following his first UNC Board of Governors meeting on Friday, January 25, 2019 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

UNC system Interim President Dr. Bill Roper said Friday that he thinks the Silent Sam Confederate statue should not be returned to its original location at McCorkle Place, a main gateway to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

He did not further state an opinion about what should ultimately happen with the statue. But when asked by faculty later in the day, he said, “we’re working this thing incrementally, and I’d just ask you to let me do it that way.” A Board of Governors committee has been charged with working alongside campus leaders to figure out a location for it.

Roper said he has begun the search for an interim chancellor to succeed UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carol Folt, who is stepping down next week. He met with faculty leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday afternoon, telling them that his goal is to have someone in place quickly, as soon as Feb. 1.

The UNC Board of Governors voted Friday to give Roper the authority to negotiate a financial package for the outgoing chancellor, who announced her resignation last week simultaneously with her decision to remove the remaining pedestal of the controversial Confederate monument.

The board also voted to release an after-action report on the events of Aug. 20, when the statue was toppled by protesters. That report had been reviewed privately by the board, and could be made public next week.

In his first formal remarks to the board as interim president, Roper said the Chapel Hill campus will be prepared to move forward. “The leadership bench at UNC-Chapel Hill is strong,” he said Friday. “On Jan. 31, we will have strong leadership in place to continue that institution’s progress.”

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UNC Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith, right, shakes hands with UNC Interim President Dr. Bill Roper following the Board of Governors meeting on Friday, January 25, 2019 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

In the event that he has not made his decision by then, he told faculty, he has talked to Provost Bob Blouin about filling in temporarily.

In the discussion with a small group of faculty leaders, professors expressed their desire to have adequate input on the interim and permanent chancellor searches, as well as the proposal for the Confederate statue. They said administrators and board members had thus far been operating largely in secret.

“As I’m sure you know, this campus has kind of been through the wringer,” said Cary Levine, who teaches art history. “Regardless of which side people are on on the various issues ... it’s really had an impact. There’s a real sense of uncertainty, of not having a voice, of powerlessness, really, amongst faculty and students on this campus. It’s had a real impact on morale on this campus and our community that we try so hard to build and sustain here.”

Roper said it’s his hope to help stabilize the climate at the campus. “I view my number one job in this role as interim president, however long that lasts, as settling things down,” he told faculty, adding, “Things have been pretty chaotic. I’ve said to the Board of Governors, and they have responded in a very heartening way, that they want to settle things down.”

Roper pledged to be engaged with people and “listen a lot.” He offered to meet with faculty again next week.

The interim chancellor is likely to be the one who is closely involved with plans about what to do with the statue. A search for a permanent successor to Folt won’t start until summer, and that process could take a year, Roper said. So the interim chancellor must be ready to jump in and lead now.

“It will need to be someone who knows the situation here and who is known by the people here, so the person — she, he — can hit the ground running without needing months to get up to speed about what our situation is,” he said.

He laid out the criteria he thinks are necessary for the next leader. Roper said the person “must be a well-known entity here in North Carolina” and “a person of strength and stature” and “gravitas.”

“We need an interim chancellor who will be able chart the right course ahead and to push back where needed,” Roper said.

Finally, Roper said, the interim chancellor will have to have his trust and the trust of system leaders.

“We’re not in the business of micromanaging key leaders across the state,” he said. “We have 16 other strong institutions, from Elizabeth City to Cullowhee, and our state rightly expects all of our institutions to receive the attention and support they need to thrive.”

Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said the search for a permanent chancellor will happen while Roper serves as UNC president. There is no need to wait until a permanent president is in place to go through that search process, he said.

“We have total faith and trust in Bill Roper’s ability to manage that process,” Smith said. “Bill’s in charge and in full charge.”

Roper, the former CEO of UNC Health Care, has found himself president of the 17-campus system at a tense time from his first day on the job. He joked Thursday that his wife congratulated him on making it through his first week, and hoped he would make it through the second.

When asked if he were interested in the job permanently, he said: “Some members of the board have told me they think I’m doing a pretty good job, and we’ll just how that all works out.”

Roper praised his predecessor, Margaret Spellings, and Folt, as she prepares to depart next week. Folt had planned to leave after graduation this spring, but the board acted to shorten her timeline — triggering an angry response from former trustees and other supporters of Folt.

“Carol Folt is a friend, an outstanding leader of an outstanding flagship, who has stewarded and guided her university through treacherous waters,” Roper said, adding, “North Carolina owes Carol a debt of gratitude for her service and commitment.”

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.

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.

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