North Carolina chancellor removes Confederate memorial and quits

Head of flagship institution acts against divisive Civil War display without notifying state education leaders

January 15, 2019
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In a coordinated move to end an emotional controversy and undercut powerful opposition within the state, the head of the University of North Carolina’s flagship institution ordered the remains of a Confederate statue to be removed from campus and announced her resignation.

Hours later, in the middle of the night – as has been done with other public Confederate memorials across the southern US – work crews on the Chapel Hill campus packed up the pedestal and commemorative plaques from the statue known as “Silent Sam” and put them in storage.

In an open letter on 14 January, Carol Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that she was leaving at the end of the current academic year, after six years, to pursue the “new and the next” challenges of her career.

In the same letter, she announced her decision to remove all remaining elements of the century-old Silent Sam statue, which was pulled down last August by protesters citing its racist history. While Professor Folt has previously made clear her concern about the racial message posed by Silent Sam, she presented her decision to act decisively as a matter of public safety on a campus where the site presented an ongoing risk of violent protests.

“No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe,” Professor Folt said in her statement, citing the dangers identified by an outside safety panel consulted in November. “The fact that despite our best efforts even since then, threats have continued to grow and place our community at serious risk has led me to authorise this action.”

Professor Folt’s resignation letter was accompanied in a university statement by a message from three of the 13 members of the UNC Chapel Hill board of trustees praising her tenure and backing her decision to remove the remaining elements of the Silent Sam statue. The three did not include the board’s current chair, Haywood Cochrane, who reportedly did not respond to a request for comment.

The chair of the board of governors responsible for the entire 17-campus University of North Carolina system, Harry Smith, protested that Professor Folt had acted without notifying the board and had undercut the board’s intention to keep studying the Silent Sam issue before acting.

The materials removed overnight were put in storage along with the toppled Silent Sam, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier from the US Civil War that had stood since 1913 at a main campus entrance. The system board has been debating whether and how to display the statue, including whether that would occur on the campus.

The previous president of the University of North Carolina system, Margaret Spellings, a former US secretary of education, resigned last year after only three years in post, after also challenging the board on issues such as her belief that Silent Sam did not belong on campus.

UNC Chapel Hill is a leading research university, placed 56th globally in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

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