It's the 21st century in most of North Carolina, but the University of North Carolina system's Board of Governors seems determined to refight the Civil War. And they're taking no prisoners.
The latest casualty: Carol Folt, the chancellor of the flagship Chapel Hill campus, who joins former UNC President Margaret Spellings in having essentially been run out of town on a rail.
Folt has had a rough six years. She inherited the mess from when the university was caught letting athletes slip by with no-show classes and term papers written for them by staff. There also was a campus rape scandal. What broke her, however, was the kerfuffle over Silent Sam.
Sam, Chapel Hill's Confederate monument, had sat on the campus since 1913. Now, however, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots, activists determined that Sam had to go. The statue, they said, glorifies slavery. It didn't help when the dedication speech surfaced, in which tycoon Julian S. Carr shared a humorous anecdote about slapping "a black wench" for being uppity.
The statue became a flashpoint for protests and the occasional full-blown riot, until students snuck in last summer and pulled it down. Sam's been in storage ever since, and the argument has been about where to put him.
Folt and staffers came in with a reasonable plan to put the statue in a museum in a far corner of the campus, one that could have added the necessary context to address the university's dark relationship with slavery and racism. That could have served a useful purpose and actually have been educational. After all, while we should not attempt to erase history, we are not obligated to prominently honor all of it.
Since it was reasonable, however, the museum plan was rejected by all sides. The protesters saw it as a "shrine" to white supremacy. The UNC Governors — appointed by the Republican-dominated legislature that gave us HB2 and killed the state's once-thriving film industry so as to spite those hated Hollywood liberal elites — was determined to stand for tradition and not to back down to statue terrorists.
It was an intolerable standoff. At a time when many students can't afford college without becoming peons to crippling loans and universities face a host of other serious challenges — not least among them the extensive hurricane damage at UNC Wilmington — the Board of Governors wanted to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on police protection for a statue that honors the darkest moment of our nation's history. Is that really what they want to be remembered for?
It's probably too much to ask young people convinced of their moral superiority to act very maturely. One would expect more of the Governors, however. But no.
So Folt finally pulled the plug. This week, she ordered Silent Sam's pedestal (covered with eulogies for the Lost Cause) pulled from its location at what is essentially the campus' front door. (A campus that, by the way, refused to admit black students until 1955, and did so only after its brazenly racist admissions policy was struck down by a federal court.)
Folt then proceeded to fall on her sword, resigning effective after spring graduation. Acting with touching graciousness, the Governors regretfully accepted her resignation ... and then told her to clear out by Jan. 31. Now the interim UNC System president will need to find an interim UNC chancellor.
We want to be clear: The people who tore down the statue last summer broke the law. Though we agree with their sentiment, we do not condone their actions. Our nation has an important tradition of civil disobedience. But civil disobedience is passive; illegally destroying property is not passive.
However, if the Board of Governors and the legislature want to put Sam back and go on battling the angry hordes, they're fools. The legislature crafted the law that gave themselves — rather than places like public universities and local entities — the final say on whether a historic statue or other monument can be moved. They could easily craft legislation that would make an exception for Silent Sam, taking into account its prominent location, the message sent to black North Carolinians at its infamous dedication and the blatant racism practiced at UNC until a federal court intervened.
By making an exception to the law due to Sam's unique circumstances — or, better yet, scrapping the overzealous law altogether — the Honorables would not be giving in to the vandals, but rather would be doing what is morally right. Preserving a shrine to white supremacy is not what a modern university should be known for.
But we're not holding our breath — since taking power, the Republican-controlled legislature and Board of Governors have seemed intent on remaking what's long been considered a world-class public university into their own image. In the process, they're slowly devaluing a significant institution that gave great value to hardworking North Carolina students and families and helped put North Carolina on the map, in a good way.
It's a dirty shame.
REPRINTED FROM THE NEW BERN SUN JOURNAL