As Confederate statues and monuments were coming down across the country last month, administrators at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, were in a tight spot. They couldn’t legally touch the campus’s statue “Silent Sam,” dedicated to UNC students who fought for the Confederacy, because of strict state laws, enacted in 2015, concerning public monuments. At the same time, a large protest was planned around the statue, and campus officials feared for public safety.
In a letter, System President Margaret Spellings, System Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette and Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt wrote to Governor Roy Cooper asking for state assistance with security, in case the campus police force didn’t prove strong enough. They also asked Cooper to convene the N.C. State Historical Commission to consider what should be done with the statue.
Cooper responded by telling them to take the statue down; his office claimed a legal loophole about public safety would allow them to do so. Chapel Hill, however, didn’t agree with the legal interpretation from the governor’s office -- instead saying the loophole only applied to public safety posed by the statue’s physical or structural issues.
The statue remains, and the protest occurred -- nonviolently, with a few arrests. The UNC system Board of Governors, however, isn’t pleased.
Fifteen of the board’s 28 members wrote a letter scolding Spellings and Bissette for what they said was bypassing the board’s authority in writing to Cooper, The Raleigh News & Observer uncovered this week. The letter said that the full board should have been consulted on the letter -- which, the members wrote, they wouldn’t have approved of sending, and going on to call its request for the historical commission was “wholly unacceptable.”
Spellings and Bissette responded by saying they were in a time crunch and had to act quickly -- they sent the letter to Cooper the day before the protest -- and defended the letter by saying they met with the board’s seven committee chairs to discuss the situation.
The scuffle provides a look into the system’s heavily politicized Board of Governors. North Carolina’s Republican-dominated Legislature wields considerable influence in appointing board members, and Cooper -- whom the 15 members accused of putting on a “political manipulation of the [statue] situation” -- is a Democrat.
Spellings was the U.S. secretary of education during President George W. Bush’s second term and came to UNC after the former president, Tom Ross, was ousted in what many called a politically motivated firing by the board.
The scuffle comes to light as the board convenes this week for important votes, including a controversial vote Friday that could cripple the litigation abilities of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights. Folt has spoken out against the vote, though Spellings has not publicly indicated her position.
Surprise Board Votes Could Undermine Spellings
The same day that the News & Observer reported the August letter from the 15 board members, the board took surprise votes to create committees to look at reorganizing Spellings’s staff and the board's meetings, and to consider moving the board's headquarters out of Chapel Hill.
On Thursday, with split votes on resolutions that apparently caught some members off guard, the Board of Governors introduced and voted on proposals that "some saw as a direct challenge to Spellings’s responsibility, as president, to manage the university system," the News & Observer reported.
The News & Observer described a tense meeting:
Billed as a session to heal divisions, the meeting instead illustrated clear factions and a new reality for the UNC system’s 28-member governing board, which was downsized this year by the Legislature. A majority of the smaller board, with many new members, apparently plans to take an activist role in overseeing the 17-campus system that educates 230,000 students.
Though the board is dominated by Republicans, and Spellings served under Bush, most of the board members who hired Spellings are no longer serving, and some were not re-elected by the state Legislature this year. When the board meets again Friday, it will be another opportunity to highlight how much its policy might differ from Spellings’s, and how much it plans to challenge her leadership.