When UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt announced her resignation earlier this week, it came as a surprise to most of the UNC community.
That included her bosses on the UNC Board of Governors, according to board member Marty Kotis.
“We didn’t have a conversation or even get notice or a copy of her letter before it was posted publicly,” Kotis said in an interview Thursday. “I’m flabbergasted why she would do it that way – I think most of us were.”
The abrupt resignation came after prolonged tension with the board of governors over the future of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument, which was toppled by protesters last year. Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees made it clear they would prefer the statue not return to campus, but the board of governors have insisted a 2015 state law created to prevent the removal of Confederate statues mandates its return.
Though Folt denies that conflict led directly to her resignation, she joined the two issues in her resignation letter. In her announcement, she let the public – and the board of governors – know that she had ordered the base of the monument removed from McCorkle Place. Board members said Folt was overstepping her duties as a a task force of board members had been established to work with UNC-Chapel Hill Trustees on a new plan for the monument to be delivered by March.
“We have a process and a governance structure,” Kotis said. “That’s my frustration right now – that people don’t seem to want to take the time to go through the governance structure.”
In her resignation announcement, Folt said she made the decision because “the safety of the UNC-Chapel Hill community is my clear, unequivocal and non-negotiable responsibility” – a seeming jab at a board and process that insisted she substitute her judgement for their own.
Folt’s resignation comes just after UNC President Margaret Spellings announced her own in October. Spellings has also repeatedly butted heads with the board, which she has criticized as micro-managing and attempting to assume responsibilities and make decisions that should have been hers.
A group of 20 former members of the UNC Board of Trustees signed on to a letter this week placing the blame for Folt’s exit squarely on the board of trustees and saying they monument issue was emblematic of a larger problem.
“[D]uring her tenure, increasing pressure from Raleigh and the Board of Governors has put politics ahead of the best interests of education, research and patient care,” the letter read. “Silent Sam came to embody it all.”
Whatever Spellings’ differences with the board, Kotis said, she did come to them and talk about her resignation before announcing it publicly – making as amicable a split as could be managed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone publicly submit a resignation before talking to their bosses about it, until now,” Kotis said.
The board accepted Folt’s resignation the day after it was offered – but decided not to let her serve out the rest of the semester, as she had wished. Instead, she will leave at the end of the January.
“I think she made a point about there needing to be a change and a healing that begins,” Kotis said. “And we thought that it was best to go ahead and bring in an interim to begin that healing. You’re not going to choose a new chancellor right away anyway – whether she leaves at the end of this month or in May. The process doesn’t move that fast.”
The board authorized acting UNC President William Roper to appoint an interim chancellor as soon as he sees fit.
Kotis said he would like to see someone like UNC alum and former pharmaceutical executive Fred Eshelman, who pledged $100 million to the university in 2014, take the position.
“I’ve always said that we should be able to find someone from North Carolina for these positions,” Kotis said. “I think if they’re connected to North Carolina and to the university, they’re more likely to stay. And Fred has written some big checks – that’s not to say you buy your way into these things, but I think it shows a connection to the university and a commitment.”
Similarly, Kotis said, he thinks someone like Jim Goodnight – the billionaire software developer and N.C. State alum – would be a good president for the system.
“I would love to see someone with ties to the state, ties to the university and experience in the business world for these positions,” Kotis said. “That’s that kind of candidate I would choose, if I had a magic wand.”
Everyone will have to take Folt at her word that the Confederate statue controversy didn’t cause her resignation, Kotis said – but they certainly seemed connected.
“I can actually sympathize with her because I think Carol and Margaret were both blasted by people in this,” Kotis said. “Carol had that student interrupt her meeting with the faculty and get in her face and call her all sorts of things. I think we’re living in a culture where there’s so much polarization and where people feel like they can just be vicious.”
Folt dealt with criticisms from the political left and right.
Over her nearly six year tenure she faculty and students accused her of refusing to take a stand on important political and social issues facing the university – and for not standing up to a board of governors they said wanted to pull the university system to the political right.
At the same time, critics on the political right said she didn’t take a strong enough hand with faculty and students who engage in protests at which they were arrested, made incendiary public comments or politicize lectures and academic issues.
“I think what we’re struggling with now is first to try to create an environment where students are safe and then trying to get back to a place where we can have reasonable conversations about these issues,” Kotis said. “If I could solve that, I’d probably win a Nobel Prize.”