The fate of Silent Sam, a statue of a nondescript Confederate soldier, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been the subject of debate for years, and the debate has been especially intense in the last year. On Friday the UNC Board of Governors announced it has no plans to remove the statue, pushing the decision into the lap of the North Carolina Historical Commission.
“The UNC Board of Governors respects each of the varying opinions within the university community concerning this matter. 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,” the board wrote in a statement. “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.”
The guidance that the board is waiting for may never come. The historical commission rarely meets (it last convened in September 2017), and the university system has no plans to petition the commission to consider the statue's removal.
Student and faculty activists have been asking for Silent Sam to be taken down for years, but the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August gave the effort a new sense of urgency. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper told UNC Chapel Hill officials that they could remove the statue, but the university said it did not have “clear legal authority to act unilaterally.”
“The university is now caught between conflicting legal interpretations of the statute from the governor and other legal experts,” officials wrote in a statement.
Other colleges have taken swift action to remove confederate statues from their campuses: Randolph College took down a statue of a Confederate army member, and Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The board's decision was not a surprise to UNC Chapel Hill students and staff.
“I was disappointed but not surprised by the [Board of Governors]’s decision on Silent Sam,” Lindsay Ayling, a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote in an email. “They had several opportunities to remove the racist statue last academic year and chose instead to spend $390,000 to protect it.”
Alyssa Bowen, also a graduate student, said the board is out of touch.
"The [Board of Governors] has made it apparent that they do not genuinely value what the members of our campus and local community have to say about Silent Sam," Bowen wrote in an email. "They hold public comments sections before every UNC [Board of Governors] meeting, where about a third of the members show up and many play on their phones. They are supposed to respond to the comments, but that hasn’t happened since May 2017."
William Sturkey, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill, said that the statue has been a serious problem for morale on campus and that working to remove the statue has been exhausting for students and staff.
“This has been going on for a whole year. We’re getting this runaround where one party says, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do, go to this group,’” he said. “By all the top-level people passing the buck, it comes down to people like me, and other people on the campus -- staff, faculty and students. This issue doesn't go away for us,” he said.
Harry Smith, the president of the UNC Board of Governors, stands by the decision.
“From my perspective, this is legislative issue and not a board of governance issue,” Smith said. “I understand the emotions, but we’re not passing the buck. At the end of the day, it’s a clearly defined state law. We can’t override state law.”
Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer at Boies Schiller Flexner who has been working with activists at the university, doesn't buy that.
“I think this excuse of the state law is a fig leaf,” he said. “UNC needs to comply with federal law as a federally funded institution. As long as Silent Sam remains standing in the middle of campus … I believe the university is violating the Civil Rights Act.”
The federal law Dellinger is referring to is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in federally funded programs, such as public universities.
“I believe, and have believed for some time, that the presence of this armed soldier in the form of the monument creates a racially hostile education environment at a public institution that receives federal funds,” Dellinger said.
Dellinger sent his argument to university administrators months ago in a series of letters and said he received “nothing convincing” in response. When asked if UNC will pursue Silent Sam's removal using the federal route Dellinger provided, Smith said he was "not a lawyer."
Adding to the controversy, a series of emails between UNC Chapel Hill officials from last April were published in a tweet Tuesday by an account associated with the statue removal effort called "Not One Left Standing." A spokeswoman from the university confirmed the emails are authentic.
In the emails, Allie Ray McCullen, a member of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, asked for greater security around Silent Sam and called for protesters, whom he referred to as "criminals" and "entitled wimps," to be arrested.
Jeff McCraken, the chief of police at UNC Chapel Hill, replied on behalf of university chancellor Carol Folt.
"I agree that an arrest and successful prosecution would go a long way in curtailing this kind of activity, in fact the arrest that was made last year for the same offense may have contributed to the fact that this in the first vandalism of the statue this school year," McCraken wrote.
Frustrated by the lack of working surveillance cameras, McCullen wrote back asking what he could do to help provide better ones.
"Also, I am sure the Entitled Wimps will strike again," he added. "It would be in their best interest to be stopped before they enter the real world."
A protest is planned for Aug. 20, to continue to agitate for Silent Sam's removal and stand in solidarity with a student who is facing charges for pouring paint and her own blood on the statue.