UNC Chancellor Carol Folt’s baffling stand on Silent Sam

The University was handed a get out of jail free card by Gov. Roy Cooper – and declined to use it. What?

Even more baffling is the fact that we requested the card. Spurred by a letter from Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, someone (I assume it was our chancellor, Carol Folt, but do not know what transpired behind the scenes) managed a feat of unalloyed diplomatic brilliance: a letter to the governor co-signed by Margaret Spellings, president of the UNC system, Carol Folt, Lou Bissette, chair of the system’s Board of Governors, and Haywood Cochrane, chair of the UNC, Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. That letter, citing safety concerns, asked for a ruling about excepting Silent Sam from the 2015 law forbidding the removal of historical monuments on public land.

The governor responded swiftly and unambiguously, authorizing Silent Sam’s removal. I fully expected to arrive on campus Tuesday morning and find that UNC, in a move echoing recent actions at the University of Texas, had removed the statue during the night. Instead, the statue was surrounded by a double row of fences and a sign was posted stipulating proper behavior in its presence. And then the university, later in the day, turned its back on the ruling it requested, and stated it didn’t agree with the governor’s interpretation of the law, even while agreeing that campus would be safer without the Confederate memorial.

The mind reels. The chief executive officer of the state tells you that a certain action is legitimate and lawful. But you decide he might be wrong. What could motivate such a decision?

Clearly, if the governor gives you the go ahead, you are not going to be prosecuted by his branch’s attorney general if you proceed. The legislature will, doubtless, be unhappy, but they have no prosecutorial powers. True, the university could, I guess, be sued over the matter, and could suffer at the hands of a vindictive legislature somewhere down the line. But should such possible ill effects over-rule immediate safety concerns, not to mention the poisonous message the statue sends every day? I don’t think so.

Meanwhile, the administration is engaged in a petty squabble with the Campus Y over the posting of political banners. The chancellor’s initial communique in response to events in Charlottesville included an appended statement that declared an absolute right to free speech on this campus. Yet now her administration is relying on invoking bureaucratic minutia to take down the Y’s signs.

Finally, as one last demonstration of a determination to act in mysterious and secretive ways, we get the announcement of a new provost. The move took everyone on campus by surprise. What’s worse: we get a new provost with a complete abrogation of any procedure for his appointment. No naming of an interim, no formation of a search committee, no public meetings with finalists for the position, no consultation with any one on campus.

The chancellor is acting like a tinpot autocrat. On the one hand, afraid of her own shadow, she can’t act decisively when she is handed a green light by the governor. On the other hand, she has isolated herself from the university community, interacting with us through statements that it takes a Talmudic scholar or a Kremlinologist to decipher, and embracing non-transparency. What’s going on? Damned if I know.

Here’s my message to Carol Folt. We – the faculty, students, and staff – of this university are your partners in the educational mission of this great university. We are not dangerous, unruly, and unpredictable subjects who need to be managed. Stop being afraid of us and start working with us.

John McGowan is the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UNC.