This is a story about leadership, which is best lived situationally. In other words, context matters to the way decisions are made and actions are taken. Sometimes—often—good leadership in a civil context requires consensus building, but sometimes history calls for something quite different from us.
On the night of August 20th, students of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and outsiders tore down the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. Gifted to the University by the North Carolina division of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, Silent Sam has been a controversial issue for decades. That night, protesters had enough and showed their solidarity with previous protesters—including Maya Little, who doused the statue with a mix of ink and her own blood earlier this year—by tearing it down.
After Silent Sam’s tumble, Chancellor Carol Folt wrote an open letter denouncing the vandalism that took place but acknowledging the controversy the monument has always caused, stating, “The monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus but throughout the community. However, last night’s actions were unlawful and dangerous, and we are very fortunate that no one was injured. The police are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage.”
At the end of August, the chancellor and the UNC board of trustees were given an opportunity by the university system’s board of governors to “determine a safe, legal, and alternative location for Silent Sam by November 15th.” In a letter to the university, Chancellor Folt wrote, “Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university.”
In her desire to bring peace and healing, some say she spoke too soon. Harry Smith, Chairman of the Board of Governors, told the News & Observer in a phone interview, “I was very disappointed in Chancellor Folt’s hasty release with such strong statements on her opinion on the relocation. The board of governors worked very hard to ensure we follow proper governance and oversight, and allowed UNC-Chapel Hill to have plenty of time to develop a meaningful, thoughtful plan. Chancellor Folt has subjugated that with such a quick release with her strong views and opinions.”
Did Folt really undermine the governance and oversight of the Board of Governors? Smith, a Greenville businessman, became chair of the 28-person board earlier this year. In July of this year, he stated in an interview with the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal that “[he] always [tells] everybody, don’t let the vocal minority outweigh the silent majority—and that happens a lot.”
He went on to say, “At the end of the day, people have their rights to have their views and opinions and that’s what makes America great—but there’s a law in place there, too.” The law to which he refers actually forbids taking down public monuments without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission. However, Gov. Roy Cooper gave permission to all university officials to make an executive decision about the statue if there was a real risk to public safety, but UNC chose not to.
Chancellor Folt’s letter to the university addressed the need to move forward and work together, stating, “To move forward, we will be working in partnership with our faculty, students and staff and will be consulting widely and openly to evaluate all ideas and questions we receive—from our campus, our alumni, UNC System President Spellings, the Board of Governors, the legislature, the governor, other decision makers, as well as from citizens across the state and the nation.”
However, Smith was still not pleased. Smith said he hoped the trustees would step in with Folt “and put it back into a good process that seeks different views and opinions …a measured, thoughtful, meaningful process, which is what the Board of Governors had requested.”
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Recently, Chancellor Folt invited public comment on the fate of Silent Sam. The university has set up a dedicated email address for anyone to submit ideas about the statue’s future. So, why is Smith complaining? After many decades of controversy, the administration is finally addressing the issue. Chancellor Folt’s letter to the university demonstrates she has heard not only the voices of the board, but those of her students, faculty, and the public, and is working to come to a resolution.
Chancellor Folt generally sees herself as a consensus builder; in a 2015 interview with the Daily Tar Heel, the UNC-Chapel Hill student newspaper, she writes, “I like to work with people, and I think there is always a problem when you start off with the largest voice in the room stating their opinion.” Folt told the Tar Heel, “You create what is a polarizing conversation—it’s either ‘you’re with me or against me,’ and I’m never going to lead with a ‘with me or against me’ posture.”
Many individuals have taken issue with Folt’s neutral stance, but issues with Folt are nothing new. Even before the Silent Sam controversy began, Chancellor Folt’s consensus-building was brought into question. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, John McGowan, an English professor who sat on the committee that selected Folt, stated, “We were naïve in thinking that someone who wanted to please all sides was going to be helpful in the current political climate in North Carolina.” But unlike Smith, McGowan believes that Folt is taking the right step in the right direction with her letter to the university. On campus, McGowan, said, Folt’s letter was seen as a statement from her saying, “I will not preside over the reinstatement of that statue on the pedestal. If someone forces that statue back on the pedestal, I will quit as chancellor.”
Edwin B. Fisher, a professor of human behavior at UNC, said, “I know Chancellor Folt is working as hard as she can for the benefit of the university as she sees it, but I think the long-term benefit of the university will be better served by saying there are some things we don’t bend on. If that means people get fired, and our budget next year takes a pounding, that short-term harm might be worthwhile.”
Tensions on campus remain, as shown by a clash between Defend UNC Group and the New Confederate States of America that took place on September 9th on the UNC campus, leading to the arrests of eight people, adding to the list of more than a dozen individuals arrested in the connection with the toppling of Silent Sam and other protests. (Eleven of them had their trial dates postponed yesterday.) The incident escalated when the campus police escorted the New Confederate States of America members off campus, prompting the anti-Silent Sam demonstrators to turn on them for “protecting a group that represented hate,” as Janine Bowen of WRAL describes it.
In her letter, Chancellor Folt says reconciliation needs to take place in order for the community to move forward. “Reconciliation of our past and our present requires us to reach deep into our hearts and across the state to the people we serve.” But can that reconciliation take place between a UNC community that wants to do away with the statue and residents of the state who don’t? The academic community is petitioning her to take more of a forceful stand against the return of the statue—41 department heads and 400 faculty members. Their position clashes with the board members and state legislators who control the support, both financial and physical, of the university. Sixty black faculty members signed a letter, and 400 faculty members supported it, stating that the campus had no place for the statue: “To reinstall the Confederate monument to any location on UNC’s campus is to herald for the nation and for the world that UNC is not a welcoming place for black people.”
The numbers show that African Americans are still a minority at UNC, and a sign of true welcome may lie in part—or at least symbolically—in the fate of Silent Sam. According to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, there are currently 1,466 total employees and 2,340 students who are African Americans, compared to 8,051 total employees and 18,352 students who are white. Their minority status is seen in the lack of concern for their emotional and physical health if Silent Sam were to remain on campus. It is reflected in the outrage at the thought of removing Silent Sam from campus. It is seen in the lack of comments and feedback from African Americans in news articles about Silent Sam. It is seen in the desire to keep Silent Sam on campus and add to the subtle, but present, racial hostility on UNC campus. It is clear in the quintessential leadership decision that must be made.
Will African Americans ever truly be welcome on the campus of the oldest public research university? Will Chancellor Folt continue to lean in and highlight the importance of this decision by suspending her own consensus-building ways in favor of actually equalizing voice in an unequal environment? Will reconciliation ever really take place? We will find out on November 15th.—Diandria Barber