Don’t let a mob decide on Silent Sam

Should the UNC Board of Governors, after months of delay, move Silent Sam to a safer, less disruptive location? My answer to that question would be a very respectful “no,” at least not until the status quo ante has been restored and the issues have been identified, defined and debated publicly. I would submit to the board members, speaking only for myself, that giving legitimacy to such behavior as we observed in the destruction of the statue, betrays duty to protect the university and educate the next generation.

First, in protecting the university, the governors insulate, stand between the forces who would “take over” the schools for their own purposes. Does not academic freedom die when coercion and violence are allowed, even a little, into governance? When an organized mob arrives with masks, ropes, sheets and a plan to destroy Silent Sam, the mob is attempting to usurp the policy making function of the Board of Governors. If the board has any policy, the first policy must be that such behavior is unacceptable.

The university is, after all, the first and the last redoubt of reason, debate, freedom of expression and respect for individual conscience and opinion. At the university, decisions are made and taught to be made rationally and after articulate public debate. It is the marketplace of ideas. The board should not make any decision influenced by fear of violence, terror or threat of violence. That is exactly contrary to the spirit of freedom and education.

By way of defense for the staff, we all understand why administrators would like to dispose of the Sam issue and “move on.” Administrators are concerned with getting on with business, putting problems behind and having a well-run summer school with as little turmoil as possible. Appeasement, a negotiated settlement with bad actors, may well buy short-term peace and get a quiet summer school. It may be good for operations but, I submit, it is bad policy.

I would very respectfully offer that while the BOG should and does value efficient operations, efficient operations should not be the ultimate policy goal of the BOG. The policy at stake in this discussion is whether or not our schools will be run by lawlessness, threats and violence The mob must not be allowed even an ounce of influence over policy at UNC, much less the power to dictate the resolution of a disagreement about the placement of the statue. If lawless people are allowed to determine policy at UNC, our great university will not be great for long.

My second reason for advocating the immediate return of Silent Sam to his original place is educational. The university is a school, and schools teach. The question is what are we teaching? Do we intend to teach that efficiency always trumps principle? Is easy expediency the guide to a good life?

If the leaders of the university heed the threats of violent people, we will be saying that the principles necessary for a civilized society: civility, lawfulness, reasoned debate; those principles we all say are non-negotiable are negotiable after all.

Of course it is easier to yield to pressure and move the statue to stop the noise. The pressure is great. The threats of further violence and name-calling are relentless. But if we yield to the violent and to the name-callers, if we give them legitimacy and grant what they are demanding, I submit that we would be teaching the lesson that surrender to violence and threats is wisdom.

I would respectfully suggest that if we do anything other than return Sam to his original home, we will have betrayed our trust, and deprived countless thousands of students the privilege of seeing what a good orderly and articulate public debate looks like. Civilization has always needed people who can disagree and debate civilly and articulately. It always will. That is why we have a university.

Once Sam is back on his original place, there is much to discuss about where Sam should finally settle. He may have a happier life in the Hall of History or on the Bentonville Battleground or somewhere else. He may live forever on the campus at UNC. Who knows? Let the debate begin. But step one: Return Sam to his original spot on the campus — immediately.

Joe Knott, a Raleigh attorney and UNC-CH alumnus, is a member of the UNC Board of Governors. His four-year term is expiring and he will leave the board in June.