Will Rierson is the 2018-19 John Blundell Fellow at the John William Pope Foundation.
North Carolinians of all political stripes can agree that our university system is worth cheering. It produces the research and knowledge workers who drive our modern economy, and our flagship school in Chapel Hill plays a big role. But if you pay attention to the higher education stories dominating today’s news, that would be difficult to remember.
The Board of Governors is playing politics and system president Margaret Spellings can’t leave her still-new job fast enough. The second-biggest story out of Chapel Hill is that the Tar Heels might finally move past the lingering effects scandal had on academics and athletics. And the biggest is that UNC has spent all of its recent time and money on a scandalous old statue.
Football aside, UNC leaders have still missed one of the first public relations rules taught at the School of Media and Journalism. They lost the narrative on Silent Sam.
I’ve met Chancellor Folt and think she is a very nice lady and smart academic, but neither she nor anyone else with power in South Building appears able and willing to solve the issue of Silent Sam.
As a recent and proud Chapel Hill graduate, I am especially outraged that UNC cannot control its public image. This can hurt the value of the degrees young alumni carry, because everyone in the working world is unhappy with the university – no matter their personal politics.
As Folt made half-hearted pleas to the state legislature to remove the statue long ago, she appeared to be made helpless by state law preventing its removal from display on campus. There has never been public evidence of a serious university attempt to build a compromise with Republicans in Raleigh, and administrators are simply not bold enough to defy their government superiors for risk of losing their cushy appointments.
Folt has failed to appease the right-wing or left-wing activists who continue to stage contentious protests on McCorkle Place at risk of public safety. Observers on the right think the university is like an asylum run by the inmates, and folks on the left believe it’s a temple to racism.
There is no telling when Chapel Hill will figure out a way to commemorate its complicated history that appeases conservatives and progressives alike.
After the statue was toppled by anarchical vandals, the administration timidly sought an end to its pestering problem. The eventual proposal to build a more than $5 million museum to house Silent Sam on the edge of campus, rejected by the Board of Governors, reads so bad on paper and was rolled out so poorly that it has to be an unserious delay tactic.
But delay until when? Perhaps until someone comes along with a really smart idea, or sympathetic Democrats win back the General Assembly, or Folt is asked to resign at her performance review scheduled for March.
I believe that Chancellor Folt simply does not want to solve the issue of Silent Sam. Her desire to shun Silent Sam eclipses her love for UNC and her role as chancellor, which was at one time quite evident to her students.
Failing to lead may be the best option for Folt, but university leaders who still wish UNC to make headlines for good reasons instead of bad should start seeking real solutions. Not everyone has to agree with these solutions, but boldly taking control of the situation can earn the respect of people on all sides of the controversy. Administrators have the chance to earn a respectable legacy of leadership.
I tend to support preservation of existing campus monuments and the rule of law. The list of campus place names that could offend someone is so long that the university would be unrecognizable if protesters got their way. Realizing this and the reality of state law preventing renaming, administrators should send a clear message to the activist left: Grow Up.
I also support the addition of new monuments to better reflect our school’s values.Lots of people have suggested erecting a statue of Dean Smith. There are certainly former basketball players willing to fund it, and there is plenty of space left on McCorkle Place. Administrators should do it. Nothing stops them.
Managing historic memorialization is a tough job for any campus leader, but a clear, forward-thinking path of leadership must be found. It can involve compromise, but university administrators like Chancellor Folt have to take charge and demonstrate why they were chosen to lead. Neglecting this responsibility strains the state of civil discourse and our university reputation, and the situation will only worsen if it drags on any longer.