New UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith sounded ready to consider some action on “Silent Sam” Friday afternoon – promising a board discussion on whether to petition the state Historical Commission.
But by Friday evening, Smith was back to the board’s original hands-off position on the Confederate monument at the Chapel Hill campus.
Smith listened to students, alumni and Chapel Hill residents during the public comment before the board’s Friday meeting. He respects their position and passion and wants them to know the board hears them, he said at a press conference after the meeting.
He even apologized for referring to the movement to move the statue in a dismissive way in an interview with the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy).
“That was a mistake by me,” Smith said. “I didn’t mean, contextually, to demean the movement and I understand why they took it that way. I’m in learning mode there.”
Smith said he’s open to a full board conversation on whether to petition the Historical Commission for the removal of the statue.
“I would expect that we will have the conversation with the board, because at the end of the day, we’ve got to hear everybody on the board,” Smith said.
He had no personal opinion on the matter, he said, but is continuing to listen and learn. He said he had learned a lot from listening to those speaking against the statue.
UNC President Margaret Spellings said she and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt spoke this week about “the implications” for the statue as students ready to return to campus for the Fall semester. The cost of securing the statue – $390,000 last year – was significant, Spellings said.
Spelling said Folt and the UNC trustees were working hard on a plan to keep students and property safe and finding a way forward.
“What are the options ahead for this board or the legislature to consider about how to put that period in our history in the right kind of context and to move on from it in ways that we learn from it?” Spellings said.
But shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday Smith released a written statement concluding there would be no board action on the issue.
“The UNC Board of Governors respects each of the varying opinions within the University community concerning this matter,” Smith said in the statement. “However, after consulting with legal counsel, neither UNC-Chapel Hill nor the UNC System have the legal authority to unilaterally relocate the Silent Sam statue. Thus, the board has no plans to take any action regarding the monument at this time, and we will await any guidance that the North Carolina Historical Commission may offer.”
It’s unclear whether Smith’s statement means that the board will not have a full discussion on petitioning the commission. The full board does not meet again until September.