Commentary, Education

Post-Silent Sam settlement, UNC has lost any claim to the high ground

Protesters at UNC’s now toppled Silent Sam monument in 2017. (Photo by Joe Killian)

I confess that I have the dubious pleasure of having interviewed members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans multiple times in my career.

But these days, after the UNC Board of Governors drunkenly pitched North Carolina’s university system into the abyss — handing over $2.5 million to the organization to bypass its extraordinarily dubious legal claims — there is one exchange with a local SCV leader that I’m thinking of in particular.

It occurred during my time at a daily paper in Union County, more than a decade ago. There was of course the usual fan fiction masquerading as history — including the wholly unsupportable assertion that the institution of slavery played a minimal role, if any, in the Civil War. But it was this individual’s repetitive use of “colored” in reference to Black people, a term with an obviously derogatory history, that stuck out to me.

He used the term multiple times, but things grew more tense when he insisted that I also use the term, not only in speech but in my coverage. I assured him — rather too diplomatically, I might add — that would not happen.

“But it is the historically accurate term,” he insisted doggedly, as if the term’s actual usage rendered it appropriate in a modern context.

It is a stridently offensive term. But there’s something horribly awry, I thought, about demanding the usage of an “historically accurate,” keenly offensive term while the organization blithely disregards historical accuracy in its accounting of the war.

If hindsight is indeed 20/20, someone forgot to tell the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose ideology is as twisted today as it was then. I shudder even to call them Confederate apologists since a misreading of the word would make it seem as if they’ve ever apologized.

UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

Ideology — their ideology and UNC’s ideology — came up Wednesday when UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz — who’s played an altogether feeble part in this sordid story to this point — shared an apparently angst-ridden letter he penned to Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey and UNC President Bill Roper.

From the letter:

Since my appointment as interim chancellor, I have maintained that the monument should never return to campus, and I support the work by members of the Board of Governors to pursue this goal. My understanding is that the settlement approved by the court required the Board of Governors and the UNC System to pay $2.5 million to a charitable trust separate and independent from the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) for purposes limited to “the preservation” of the monument. I also understand that none of the funds in the trust can be used for the benefit or the activities of the SCV unrelated to the monument’s preservation.

Given the contents of the order, I am particularly concerned with recently published post-settlement comments from the SCV regarding how the organization may seek to use funds from the charitable trust, including plans to promote an unsupportable understanding of history that is at-odds with well-sourced, factual, and accurate accounts of responsible scholars. These comments, along with various aspects of the settlement, particularly the requirement that UNC-Chapel Hill reimburse the UNC System for the payment of the funds to the trust, have led to concerns and opposition from many corners of our campus. Read more

Environment, News

Another defeat for the environment: PFAS provisions struck from must-pass defense bill

Image: Adobe stock

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and environmental advocates suffered a stinging setback with the release of a defense policy bill this week that lacks key provisions to crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to serious health problems.

The must-pass legislation represented the lawmakers’ best hope this year for enacting a comprehensive set of strong provisions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other problems.

The compromise defense bill that emerged Monday leaves out a House-passed amendment that would have required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law. The provision would have triggered cleanup of contaminated sites around the country.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who championed the measure, called its exclusion from the bill “inexcusable” and “unforgivable” in an interview. “I’m going to do everything I can until we get PFAS listed as a toxic chemical at the federal level,” she said.

Also on the cutting-room floor: language that would have required the EPA to limit PFAS levels in waterways and strengthen regulations on PFAS in drinking water.

The bill does retain some PFAS-related provisions.

“Obviously we didn’t get everything we wanted, but I do think we made some important progress,” said Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).

The National Defense Authorization Act would authorize funding for the U.S. Department of Defense and other national security programs through fiscal year 2020. The $738 billion compromise bill could come up for a vote as early as this week.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, co-chair of the congressional PFAS task force, signed a letter in October threatening to withhold support for the bill if it didn’t “significantly address” PFAS. Dozens of other lawmakers also signed on.

“I am very disappointed that Senate Republicans are blocking meaningful bipartisan legislation to regulate and clean-up PFAS chemicals,” Kildee said in a statement. “If Congress fails to act now on PFAS, service members and the American people may have to wait years for this administration to act.”

The White House threatened to veto the bill in July over certain PFAS provisions but issued a statement of support for the compromise version on Tuesday. The statement flagged the bill’s pay raise for troops, paid parental leave for federal employees and the creation of a U.S. space force.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) blamed Senate Republicans for excluding key PFAS provisions from the bill so it could make its way through Congress. Others said House Democrats walked away from negotiations because they felt PFAS provisions were too weak.

Slotkin says the provisions that remain in the base bill still represent progress.

“The most we’ve ever had in any Pentagon budget is a commitment to study PFAS,” she said. “This is the first time we have something that’s actually beyond just studying the problem.”

The former Pentagon official pointed to language that would require the military to transition off of PFAS-laden fire-fighting foam by 2024, ban the foam in exercises and training, test PFAS levels in military firefighters’ blood and other provisions.

Hoyer pledged to bring a stand-alone package of stronger PFAS provisions to the House floor in January. Still, such legislation would have to clear the GOP-controlled Senate and White House.

Used in tape, nonstick pans and other everyday items, PFAS have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country.

As Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg has reported on numerous occasions, PFAS have been identified by experts and advocates as problem in several locales in North Carolina. Click here to read her October story “‘It’s a horrible story’ — Officials, advocates decry the hazards of PFAS at N.C. summit.”

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

Education

State Rep. Craig Horn becomes the first Republican candidate to join the race for state superintendent

State Rep. Craig Horn

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County, is officially a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Horn is the first GOP candidate in the race for the seat currently held by Republican Mark Johnson who announced plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2020.

Catherine Truitt, the chancellor of Western Governors University, is only other Republican who has expressed interest in the superintendent’s seat but has not yet filed.

Horn is one of the co-chairs of the House’s K-12 Education Committee.

He told Policy Watch last month that he would run only if he believes he can make a difference, his family supports the decision and he is certain he can raise the $500,000 he thinks it will take to be successful.

So far, four of the five Democrats who have said they are running for the seat have filed for election.

The four Democratic candidates are: Charlotte educator and activist Constance Lav Johnson, Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at the College of Education at NC State University, James Barrett, a former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member and Jen Mangrum, a clinical associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Greensboro who ran for a seat in the legislature last year against Senate leader Phil Berger.

Keith Sutton, who was recently named chairman of the Wake County school board, has announced plans to run for state superintendent but had not filed by the time this story was published.

Amy Jablonski, a Raleigh educational consultant and former teacher, had announced plans to run for the seat but recently said she will not seek the post.

The filing period for most 2020 contests opened at noon on Dec. 2 and will close Dec. 20 at noon.

Higher Ed, News

Civil Rights group lays out legal case against Silent Sam settlement

In a new letter to the UNC Board of Governors, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law lays out its legal argument against the controversial UNC System settlement over the Silent Sam Confederate monument.

(Read the full letter here.)

On Wednesday the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced they are representing UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty clients and plan to intervene on their behalf in the litigation surrounding the controversial university settlement with the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The settlement gives the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam to the Confederate heritage group — along with $2.5 million from the UNC-Chapel Hill endowment funds.

In a letter released Wednesday morning, the national civil rights group outlines its legal argument against the settlement and demands that it be reversed.

“This is matter of grave public interest,” the group wrote in its letter. ” Particularly as it concerns the dubious transfer of $2.5 million in public funds to support the work of a white supremacist organization, apparent improprieties in securing the court’s approval of the Consent Order, and serious questions about the BOG’s fidelity to its legal, ethical, and fiduciary duties. We therefore respectfully request that you act immediately to take any actions necessary to protect the interests of UNC and to recover the 2.5 million dollars of public funds allocated to expand and perpetuate the racist and destructive ‘Lost Cause’ ideology.”

The letter was copied to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and C. Boyd Sturges III, who represented the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the settlement.

The UNC Board of Governors meets Friday in a special session by conference call.

Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors protest planned despite conference call meeting

Few UNC Board of Governors members are expected at Friday’s board meeting in Chapel Hill. The board will be meeting in a “special session by conference call.”

But that’s not stopping students, faculty and community members who planned to protest the controversial Silent Sam settlement at Friday’s meeting.

Organizers say the planned demonstration will go forward, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Center for School Leadership Development, 140 Friday Center Drive in Chapel Hill.

 

The protest follows weeks of controversy over the settlement, which gives the controversial Confederate monument to the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans — along with $2.5 million.

The deal has been strongly opposed by student and faculty groups as well as alumni. On Wednesday the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced it would intervene legally to block the settlement.

Committee meetings on Thursday, before the full UNC Board of Governors conference call, will include the Budget and Finance, University Governance and Personnel and Tenure committees.

The University Governance committee will hold a closed session that includes a legal affairs report from UNC System General Counsel Tom Shanahan and the approval of the closed session minutes from the board’s meetings of Nov. 14 and Nov. 27. The closed session on the 27th was the meeting in which the Silent Sam settlement was approved by that committee. A full vote of the board was never taken.

Friday’s conference call meeting will include a closed session during which the board will hear a report from Shanahan and UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

The board will not hold a post-meeting press conference with the Interim UNC System president and chairman of the board, which has been customary for years.