It took two violations of the law — one by protesters last year, and one by Carol Folt last Monday — to bring down Silent Sam.
Authoritarians will cry out for punishment and restoration of “the rule of law,” but before buying into that knee-jerk reaction, it is well worth remembering what all of us learned in American Civics 101: There is a world of difference between the law-breaking resistance of those who oppose abuses of authority, and the indefensible corruptions of those who have abused the authority with which they are entrusted.
I would not then presume to plead for those who tore down Silent Sam — they knew what they were doing, they knew what it might cost them, and they have more than enough moral capital to defend themselves. But I would plead against the source and cause of the disorder that made Silent Sam a symbol of infamy, all of which was in place before Sam came down, and all of which still remains after his fall.
Most attentive citizens already know of the long train of abuses and usurpation by which the legislature and the UNC system Board of Governors have damaged and corrupted public higher education in this state. That corruption has to be extirpated root and branch if the reputation and pride of this state and its University are going to recover.
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At this point it makes no sense to squander energy trying to roll back eight years of petty affronts. The only way to get university governance back on track is to rebuild its foundations. Silent Sam has brought us back to the future. It is time to make good on that opportunity, and there are a handful of changes that could move things a long way in the right direction:
1. The current Board of Governors has to step up to its public obligations. Rein-in errant members who repeatedly violate their oath of office. Buck-up and defend the independence of the Board from legislative overreach.
2. End the Board’s insertion and interference in the selection process for campus chancellors. There was a perfectly adequate policy in place, and the recent changes that put the board in-the-face of campus search committees has been an unmitigated disaster.
3. Restore the Governor’s authority to select (at least) four members of the campus Boards of Trustees. The irresponsible and haughty excesses of the legislature after the current governor was elected, including stripping the Governor of board of trustee appointment authority, violates even the weakest interpretation of ‘checks and balances.
4. This one is absolutely critical: reform the selection process for the Board of Governors. New York is the only other state that gives the legislature unfettered control over the higher education governing body, and they suffer from that too. The governing board is an executive agency; by law it must serve the interests of the whole state, not the petty peeves and limited perspective of a handful of lawmakers . The losers in this reform would be the political parties. The winners are the people of North Carolina.
5. This is perhaps so obvious it goes without saying: Vote for candidates who have integrity, and a principled commitment to make UNC the best higher education system in the country. But don’t assume that anyone with a D, or an R, in front of their names, necessarily qualifies. Ask them where they stand, hold them to their promises, and support them if they will try to do the right thing. Silent Sam may be out of sight now, but the reasons he caused so many problems should not be out of mind. Bad University governance is the bane of North Carolina, but it is the structures we have that make those abuses nearly inevitable. It is well past the time we allowed that to continue being true of how our colleges and universities are governed.
Stephen Leonard is an emeritus professor at UNC Chapel Hill and a past Chair of the UNC system Faculty Assembly.