Fate of “Silent Sam” still uncertain as UNC Board of Governors again delays decision

The UNC Board of Governors has pushed the deadline for a proposal on the fate of the Silent Sam Confederate monument to its May meeting, according to a letter from board Chairman Harry Smith.

“In order to give our team the time they need to do their work, I am extending that [March 15] deadline and asking them to report back to the Board at our May 2019 meeting,” Smith wrote in an e-mail to board members.

Back in December, the board rejected a controversial, $5.3 million plan to return the Silent Sam Confederate statue to the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill as part of a UNC History Center at the edge of campus. The board then formed a task force of Board of Governors members to help the UNC Board of Trustees put together an alternate plan to be presented to the full board by March 15.

That decision was followed by the abrupt resignation of Carol Folt as Chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She announced in her resignation letter that she had ordered the base of the statue, which was toppled by student protesters last August. The move angered many members of the Board of Governors who felt Folt had overstepped in giving that order.

Since then both UNC System Interim President Bill Roper and UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz  have said they believe the statue should not return to campus.

Below, a timeline of the ongoing saga of the statue and related political controversies.

A timeline of conflicts

January 16, 2015: UNC System President Tom Ross is forced out by the UNC Board of Governors. No reason is given, though board members insist it was not due to his performance. The swiftness and lack of transparency – condemned by members of the board itself – led to speculation the new, more conservative members of the board wanted to remove Ross, a prominent Democrat, in favor of someone more in line with their own politics.

October 23, 2015: The UNC Board of Governors elects Margaret Spellings President of the UNC System. Spellings, a prominent Republican who served as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, was a controversial choice. The secretive hiring process also led faculty members to say they felt shut out. Her hiring led to student walk-outs on multiple UNC campuses on her first day as President.

August 22, 2017: Spellings emails the board a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper outlining concerns the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue could pose a threat to students and could, in the charged environment, be in danger of being damaged or destroyed. The letter urged Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to “take up this matter and to consider what steps should be taken, consistent with the law.” The letter was signed by Spellings, Folt, then Chairman Louis Bissette and UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane. It touched off a political firestorm and a letter signed by 15 board members criticizing Spellings for going to Cooper, a Democrat, as weakness and hand-wringing. Ultimately, the board rejects Cooper’s suggestion that danger to the campus and statue justifies its removal, despite a 2015 law passed to prevent the removal of such monuments.

January 3, 2018: Then-UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette writes a column for Higher Ed Works in which he criticizes the board’s partisanship and rancor and encourages them to turn away from politics and micromanaging administrators and boards of trustees throughout the system. Bissette is publicly lambasted for the column, including angry comments in open session at a full board meeting.

May 24, 2018: Harry Smith is elected chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. Smith is one of the board members who signed the letter critical of Spellings and part of a moe combative and conservative wing of the board that has had a number of public conflicts with her and Folt.

July 16, 2018: The final candidate for chancellor at Western Carolina University abruptly removes themselves from consideration. It is revealed Tom Fetzer, one of the board’s more combative and conservative members, leaked confidential information on the candidate to a private firm. Fetzer, who said he had been approached by Western Carolina trustees to become interim chancellor, was told by Spellings someone else had already been chosen. Fetzer presented information on the final candidate found by the private firm that he said suggested the candidate provided inaccurate information when applying for the position. That’s an assertion other board members privy to confidential information on the candidate dispute. Fetzer was criticized for overstepping his role in leaking the confidential information. Spellings, who had chosen the final candidate, considered it an affront to her authority and likely to dissuade good candidates from applying in the future, as they cannot be sure their application information is confidential.

August 21, 2018: Protesters topple the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument. Board of Governors members criticize Folt and Spellings’ handling of the protests leading up to its toppling and the response to the event.

October 26, 2018: UNC System President Margaret Spellings resigns after a tenure marked with the tensions with the UNC Board of Governors. She does not deny there have been tensions but insists it is simply time for her to move on.

November 1, 2018: UNC Board of Governors announces Dr. William Roper, CEO of UNC Healthcare, as interim President of the UNC System.

December 3, 2018: UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees suggests housing the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue in a new, $5.3 million UNC history center that would also feature other items from UNC’s history and include classroom space. The center would be at the edge of the developed campus with far more security than its original site at McCorkle Place.

December 14, 2018: The Board of Governors rejects the history center plan and appoints a task force of board members to work with Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees on a new plan for the statue by mid-March.

January 14, 2019: UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt announces her resignation. In the announcement, which took the UNC Board of Governors by surprise, she also announced that she had ordered the base of the toppled Confederate statue removed from McCorkle Place. Members of the Board of Governors – including Chairman Harry Smith – condemn the order and criticize Folt not speaking with the board about stepping down.

January 15, 2019: The UNC Board of Governors accepts Folt’s resignation, but announces they will not allow her to serve until the end of the semester as she intended. Instead, they announce her last day will be January 31. The board authorizes interim UNC System President William Roper to appoint an interim chancellor as soon as he sees fit.

February 6, 2019: Roper appoints Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts & Sciences, as the school’s interim chancellor. Guskiewicz, who says he will seek the position on a permanent basis, says he believes the monument should not return to the campus.

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