Faculty members in the University of North Carolina system voiced shock and concern Monday evening after the chancellor of the flagship Chapel Hill campus, Carol L. Folt, announced she will step down after graduation.
Folt, a life scientist who left Dartmouth College to become Chapel Hill chancellor in 2013, had given few indications she planned to leave one of the most prestigious jobs in public higher education. But few if any could separate her decision from the struggle over the future of the Silent Sam Confederate monument that protesters tore down in August after years of debate.
That’s because when Folt announced her resignation in a letter posted Monday, she also announced that she had ordered the statue’s pedestal and commemorative plaques removed from the historic heart of the Chapel Hill campus. Their presence was a continuing threat to personal safety, community well-being and a productive educational environment, she wrote.
“As I have said before, safety concerns alone should preclude the monument from returning to campus,” Folt wrote. “This was also the strong preference of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. The base and tablets will be preserved until their future is decided. While I recognize that some may not agree with my decision to remove the base and tablets now, I am confident this is the right one for our community -- one that will promote public safety, enable us to begin the healing process and renew our focus on our great mission.”
Folt’s decision was another step amid escalating tensions over race, history and culture that have consumed governance of the University of North Carolina system and Chapel Hill. Hours after her announcement, the Board of Governors chair, Harry Smith, issued an extraordinary statement saying the board did not know of Folt’s announcement before it went public. The board was meeting "in closed session to deliberate issues related to UNC-Chapel Hill’s leadership" when Folt issued her statement, according to Smith.
“We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action,” Smith's statement said. “It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the board’s goal to operate with class and dignity. We strive to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are always involved and that we are always working in a healthy and professional manner.
“In December, the board developed and articulated a clear process and timeline for determining the best course of action for the future of the monument -- and this remains unchanged,” Smith's statement went on. “Moving forward, the board will continue to work tirelessly and collaboratively with all relevant parties to determine the best way forward for UNC-Chapel Hill. We will do so with proper governance and oversight in a way that respects all constituencies and diverse views on this issue. The safety and security of the campus community and general public who visit the institution remains paramount.”
Several members of the Board of Trustees for Chapel Hill issued their own statement saying Folt acted appropriately and that chancellors have ultimate authority over public safety on campus.
"As current officers of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and a former chair who served with Chancellor Carol L. Folt, we support her decision to remove intact the base of the Confederate Monument and accept her decision to step down from her position," said that statement, attributed to board Vice Chair Charles Duckett, Secretary Julia Grumbles and past chair and current member Lowry Caudill. "We thank Chancellor Folt for working tirelessly to elevate our University each and every day to serve the people of North Carolina and beyond."
Folt had supported the idea of moving Silent Sam off campus, but that was not allowed under state law. She’d backed a controversial plan to spend $5 million on an on-campus history center that would have held the monument and detailed the history of race at the university.
That plan could have been seen as a compromise between monument backers who feared its removal would have been rewriting history and protesters who felt it glorified a racist past. But it drew criticism, including from members of the system’s Board of Governors. The board rejected the plan, with some calling for the statue to be erected outside once again. Faculty and student leaders repeatedly called for the statue to be kept off campus, saying it was created as part of an effort to promote white supremacy.
To be sure, the Silent Sam issue was not the only one to create tension between UNC leaders and the Board of Governors. Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, decided in October to leave the system presidency after a number of public run-ins with board members. Spellings had publicly asked the board to focus on the big picture while she and campus chancellors dealt with the finer details of the higher education enterprise. She tried to dedicate her attention to educational issues like graduation rates and assessment, only to have legislators and board members repeatedly circle back to social issues -- like a since-changed law regulating bathroom use at public agencies, including colleges, in order to prevent transgender people from using the facilities they wished, and a ban on centers engaging in litigation that some lawmakers and board members found objectionable.
Board members had also criticized Spellings after attempts to address the Silent Sam issue. So while other issues festered, the statue was clearly a flashpoint.
Folt started her letter Monday by saying she has been driven by working with others to take on challenges and solve problems. She pointed to successes in strategic planning and fund-raising and said the time has come for her to pass the mantle of leadership and look for her own future.
She pledged to focus on the university’s core mission and to “make sure every person on our campus can thrive and feel welcome.” She will push forward with a history task force created to encourage reflection on race, class and privilege and how they have shaped the university and the country.
Then she issued a rebuke over Silent Sam.
“There has been too much recent disruption due to the monument controversy,” she wrote. “Carolina’s leadership needs to return its full attention to helping our University achieve its vision and to live its values. And I want this semester to be exciting and fulfilling for every one of our soon-to-be graduates.”
Folt didn’t directly say that her decision to step down was tied to the controversy. Some said she didn’t have to.
“I think it's pretty clear that she meant to communicate that these two decisions were interrelated, thereby suggesting that she'd felt constrained earlier by her concerns over her own job security,” said Jay Smith, a professor in the history department at Chapel Hill. “With the anvil no longer hanging over her head, she seems to be saying with this announcement, she was free to make the bold and moral choice to get rid of that pedestal.”
Faculty members voiced relief that the statue's remnants were being removed.
“I am glad it’s gone and hope that we can have some peace as we find a way forward,” said William Sturkey, an assistant professor of history at Chapel Hill, in an email. “The monument and pedestal have for years been a safety threat that only benefits those who despise the university and its values in 2019.”
The circumstances of the announcement troubled many, however.
Folt’s announcement comes as the Board of Governors is scheduled to meet next week, noted David A. Green, the chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly and a professor of law at North Carolina Central University. William L. Roper is also fresh on the job as interim president of the system, taking over this month after Spellings’s departure.
Campus chancellors have been under intense pressure as they deal with difficult issues in a highly charged environment, Green said.
“There is a level of scrutiny placed upon chancellors that makes it challenging for chancellors to do their jobs,” he said. “My concern with this level of scrutiny and this level of tension is whether universities within the system are in the best position to get the best chancellors.”
Folt’s decisions resonated off campus. Michael Behrent is an associate professor in the department of history at Appalachian State University and vice president of the AAUP conference for North Carolina.
“Silent Sam has shone a flashlight on the governance process,” Behrent said. “You’ve got students, the Faculty Council and African American faculty members saying they feel strongly this statue has to go. But she can’t, as much as she would like to accommodate those bodies, because of pressure from her Board of Governors.”
Jay Smith, at Chapel Hill, cast Folt’s resignation as another in a line of moves under political pressure.
“We've seen the resignations of our chancellor, the university general counsel and the system president all within the past few months -- each departure clearly caused, at least in part, by a reactionary Legislature and the disruptive directives of a politicized and ham-handed governing board,” he said. “If the objective of this anti-intellectual crew is to paralyze UNC-Chapel Hill's leadership and intimidate the broader community, they sure seem to be succeeding.”