This month the UNC Board of Governors officially got a new chairman.
Harry Smith, part of an aggressive conservative faction of members, took the reins of the board on July 1. Late last month he gave a victory lap interview to the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly the Pope Pope Center for Higher Education Policy).
In the wide ranging interview Smith touched on the protests over the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue, the controversial UNC speech policy and future plans for the board and the 17 UNC system schools.
There weren’t many probing or challenging questions from the Martin Center, which has pushed and taken credit for conservative shifts in public higher education in the state. But it’s still well worth a read.
On the UNC free speech policy:
“I haven’t really been involved in that at all. I’ll tell you how I view all of that: the law is the law. We don’t make it law at the board of governors. You can inject all the emotions you want into it, but the law is the law. We’re going to follow the law, and that’s no different with Silent Sam: there’s a law in place. So, we don’t get to make that decision at the board of governors, despite any emotions that want to go along with it. That’s the same with free speech, there’s a law in place—we’re going to follow the law. We’re not a legislative body; we’re a policy body. When the legislature votes and passes a law, we’re going to follow it, pretty simple. We’re not going to go trying to change laws at the board of governors, that’s not our job. The folks in Raleigh and the local officials across the state, when they make decisions at the state or federal level, we’re going to respect that process entirely.”
On the “Silent Sam” conflict, which recently extended to a billboard campaign:
“I always tell everybody, don’t let the vocal minority outweigh the silent majority—and that happens a lot. It’s been no different when we have protests here [at meetings of the Board of Governors]: we have 230,000 students and we have six protestors from time to time. 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. It’s a very clear law: I don’t even know how you can interpret it any differently than it’s written. So, at the end of the day, there’s a law in place that’s passed by the legislature that we’re going to respect. If you want to move Silent Sam, you don’t need to be coming to the UNC administration or the board of governors; you need to go down and talk to the legislature—because there’s a law in place. We’re going to follow the law when it comes to the board of governors. And by the way, we’ve got plenty to do without getting into the writing the law business.”
As you might imagine, the interview didn’t go over so well with those who sympathize with the movement to remove “Silent Sam.”
After the interview was published, the Martin Center took the step of adding a clarification to the story.
“Editor’s note: In the following sentence: ‘It’s been no different when we have protests here: we have 230,000 students and we have six protesters from time to time,’ Governor Smith was referring to occasional protests that have taken place at the Center for School Leadership Development, where the Board of Governors meetings take place; he was not referring to Silent Sam protesters on UNC-Chapel Hill campus. We added context to clarify this point.”