Courtesy of Carolina Alumni Review/Grant Halverson
Carol Folt on Tuesday morning tried to separate her decision to remove the remnants of the toppled Silent Sam Confederate monument from her choice to step down as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after graduation.
Hours later, the UNC system’s Board of Governors eliminated any slim chance that would happen, taking action some saw as telling Folt not to let the door hit her on the way out -- and possibly cementing her as a martyr in the eyes of groups unhappy with what they believe is an increasingly activist board.
The Board of Governors accepted Folt’s resignation during a closed emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon, specifying a date months earlier than the chancellor had intended to leave. The board accepted the resignation effective Jan. 31, whereas Folt had said she planned to step down after commencement, scheduled for May.
“She resigned, we accepted it,” said Harry Smith, Board of Governors chair, during a question-and-answer session with reporters, the audio of which was provided to Inside Higher Ed. “We just felt it was better to compress the timeline and then work more toward a healing process.”
The board acted after crews removed the base and commemorative plaques of the Silent Sam statue overnight. Folt said they would be preserved until the future of the monument can be determined.
UNC leadership had been consumed for months over the issue of the statue’s future. Protesters pulled it down in August following long-running debates between supporters of its version of history and critics who said it represented white supremacy and the Jim Crow era in which it was erected. The relocation of such a statue from campus is not permitted under state law, and Folt and some others backed a plan to spend $5 million on an on-campus history center to hold the monument while telling the history of race at the university.
But the Board of Governors rejected that plan in December. It appointed a committee to craft a new plan for the Silent Sam monument by March 15.
Events all came to a head in a whirlwind 26 hours during which Folt and the Board of Governors seemed to be constantly jostling for position. The board said just before 3 p.m. Monday that it would have an emergency closed session “to discuss personnel and legal matters.” Two hours later, Folt announced she was stepping down and that she had made the call to remove the statue’s base and tablets.
Board of Governors chair Smith proceeded to issue a statement blasting her action, saying it lacked transparency and undermined the board’s goals of operating “with class and dignity.” The board did not know about the chancellor’s announcement before it was issued, according to Smith.
Folt held a media call Tuesday morning after the overnight removal of the monument’s remnants. She said she made the monument decision with safety in mind. She added that she felt she had more to accomplish at Chapel Hill.
Then in quick succession, the Board of Governors went into an afternoon meeting and the leaders of the Campaign for Carolina -- Chapel Hill's effort to raise a massive $4.25 billion by the end of 2022 -- issued a statement calling on board members to keep Folt through the end of the academic year. The Board of Governors announced it had voted to accept the chancellor’s resignation effective at the end of January.
"There are definitely camps in this," Smith said afterward, indicating the action was in the best interest of the institution and the chancellor before referencing the removal of the Silent Sam remnants. "It gets very difficult to operate when you take a decision like that."
Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, Folt issued a statement that seemed to signal an end to the back-and-forth, at least temporarily.
“While I’m disappointed by the Board of Governors’ timeline, I have truly loved my almost six years at Carolina,” it said. “Working with our students, faculty and staff has inspired me every day. It is their passion and dedication, and the generosity of our alumni and community, that drive this great university. I believe that Carolina’s next chancellor will be extremely fortunate, and I will always be proud to be a Tar Heel.”
Earlier in the day, Folt indicated to reporters she planned to remain chancellor for several months.
“I certainly hope I’ll have a chance to do what I had set out to do,” she said in response to a question about being forced to resign. “I think we’ve got a lot of momentum going. I think we’ve got a lot still yet to accomplish, and I feel like I’m doing what I need to do. So I will look forward, day by day, in the same way that I always have.”
She also explained her thinking on removing the monument remnants. Threats connected to the monument have continued to grow despite the university’s best efforts, putting the community at risk, she said. Folt received reports from a security panel and engaged in discussions with lawyers, she said.
“I was in a position where I feel that I had to take action that was legal,” she said.
The chancellor sought to draw lines between her decision about the monument and her resignation. The timing of the two decisions may have converged, but they were different, she said. She did not want her job status to be part of her thinking on the monument.
Faculty members weren’t buying the idea that there was a difference.
“Of course it was intentional,” said Frank R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at Chapel Hill. “You don’t resign by mistake.”
Still, Folt’s actions over the previous day won her support from faculty members and students, many of whom had been unhappy with or lukewarm toward her leadership. The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper wrote in an editorial that she had finally reclaimed the moral high ground, but at the cost of her job. Baumgartner called her Monday announcement an act of courage.
Consequently, the jockeying between chancellor and system board drove further wedges between already-shattered UNC constituencies.
“This is definitely a ratcheting up of the hostility,” Baumgartner said. “I think the chancellor just became very popular with the faculty, and now she’s going to be fired even more quickly. It’s like, ‘I quit. No, you don’t. I fire you.’”
The board’s action wasn’t punishment, according to its chair, Smith. But the board would have liked to have engaged in more conversation about Folt’s actions, he said.
“You know, it’s a bit stunning based on how this has gone, that UNC Chapel Hill felt they needed to take this kind of draconian action -- and I think that’s what it is,” Smith said. “When you start scheduling cranes at night and key and critical stakeholders aren’t involved, it’s just unfortunate.”
Removing the statue remnants overnight was best practice, Folt said earlier in the day. The UNC campus is filled with organizations like hospitals, churches and day-care centers, so officials wanted to move the heavy base when pedestrian traffic was low.
“You start bringing in cranes and moving things around at night,” she said. “You try to do that when there aren’t going to be disruptive activities.”
Police and a small crowd watched the removal, according to The News & Observer. One 39-year-old man who founded a pro-Confederate monument group was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor of resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer after he tried to interrupt the efforts and shouted that workers were violating the law, it reported.
Some faculty members cheered the fact that the statue was gone.
“Today is a day to celebrate the removal of the monument to Jim Crow terror, the statue known as Silent Sam,” said Altha Cravey, an associate professor of geography who has been at Chapel Hill since 1994 and is president of the North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors, in an email. She went on to recall the efforts of protest leaders and to say issues of shared governance will still need to be addressed.
“#StrikeDownSam antiracists waged a battle that has also exposed a profound crisis in shared governance on Chapel Hill’s campus and in the statewide UNC system,” she said.
The Board of Governors also on Tuesday authorized the system’s interim president to hire an interim chancellor for Chapel Hill. The system has an interim president because Margaret Spellings decided in October to resign. Spellings, who had her own share of run-ins with the board, was scheduled to have her last day Tuesday.
Smith said the Board of Governors has the bandwidth to hire both a system president and chancellor of the flagship Chapel Hill campus. Right now, an emphasis is to focus Chapel Hill on things like research and academics, he said.
“I think the outcome is correct,” he said. “I think it’s a good outcome for Chancellor Folt, too. We want her to move on with grace and dignity, and we want to treat her accordingly.”