Before she entered academic administration, Carol Folt was a professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College, where she researched metal toxicity. Her work concentrated on heavy metals, particularly mercury and its effect on ecosystems and humans.
But as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Folt encountered a metal alloy that could wreak havoc on a university’s environment. It was bronze rendered in the form of a Confederate soldier. That metal man known as Silent Sam ignited protests and counter-protests, stirred passionate arguments about hate and honor and ultimately soured relations between Folt, who wanted it gone, and members of the UNC Board of Governors, who wanted it somehow preserved.
After being pulled down by protesters in August, Silent Sam lies in storage. On Monday night, upon Folt’s orders, the monument’s base, affixed with plaques honoring former UNC students who fought in defense of the Confederacy, was removed. And with that final banishing of the monument, the chancellor announced that she, too, will depart. The Board of Governors accepted her resignation Tuesday and curtly moved up her planned exit from after spring graduation to Jan. 31.
On one level, Folt’s announcement was a surprise given her pattern of accommodation since she took the job in 2013. She had gone along with the legalistic and evasive strategy of avoiding NCAA sanctions for the school’s academic/athletic scandal. She tolerated interference and bullying from a 28-member Board of Governors the Republican-led legislature has stocked with conservatives, many of them critical of the university and suspicious of those who run it. Folt even tried to placate the board with an outlandish — and perhaps not entirely serious — proposal to preserve Silent Sam on campus in a $5.3 million historic center. The board rejected it.
But on another level Folt’s resignation was as predictable as the chemical reactions she knows. The essence of a university is academic freedom and that extends to the freedom of a chancellor to operate and protect the university as she sees fit. Take that away and the chancellor – if she is at all one – must go away too. The same effect was just demonstrated by UNC System President Margaret Spellings, who resigned in exasperation and frustration over the Board of Governors undercutting her authority.
On Sunday, in an N&O op-ed, Spellings bid a warm farewell to UNC, but said the state government needed to get its act together about how the university system and its 17 campuses are governed.
Some at UNC wanted Folt to be a hero, to stand up to the meddlers and the bullies on the board. But Folt — until her bold break on Monday — preferred to be an administrator and an ambassador. In that latter role, she was successful. She helped raise more than $2.4 billion in the Campaign for Carolina fundraising drive and oversaw growth in research funding. She also genuinely tried to negotiate between factions on campus.
But in the end, Folt saw no amount of cooperation and compromise would satisfy board members so partisan and tone deaf that they couldn’t understand how Silent Sam’s presence stained the university any more than they could see how their meddling undermines UNC’s freedom and morale.
Silent Sam came down. Margaret Spellings quit. Carol Folt is leaving. And the board’s reaction? Dismay that its good example is not being followed.
Board Chairman Harry Smith issued a statement saying the board was upset Folt hadn’t consulted her 28 bosses before doing the right thing with the remnant of the monument.
“We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action,” Smith’s statement said. “It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity. We strive to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are always involved and that we are always working in a healthy and professional manner.”
As Folt, the researcher of metal toxicity, has come to know, Silent Sam offended in bronze, but the dysfunctional Board of Governors does so with pure brass.