Carol Folt came from Dartmouth to Chapel Hill amid UNC’s academic scandal and almost immediately found herself thrust into a no-win scenario, navigating a poisonous political atmosphere increasingly dominated by right-wing goobers on the Board of Governors who thought little of higher education and less of intellectuals.  

Then came Silent Sam. 

It’s easy for those of us on the outside to say that Folt should have acted sooner—that, right after Charlottesville in 2017, she should have had the monument ripped down and melted, instead of wringing her hands and letting everything fester. 

And maybe she should have. Maybe, as activists charged, her inaction was complicity. 

But such open defiance of her bosses and state authorities, not to mention the law, would have cost her her job—and, perhaps, any chance of leading a major university in the future. Moral stands like that come with consequences. 

Folt had no love for the stupid statue. Its presence was an embarrassment, and the furor surrounding it had to be the source of more than one tension headache. In August 2018, when demonstrators felled the statue, Folt dutifully called their action “unlawful and dangerous,” but you could tell that her heart wasn’t in it. 

“The monument has been divisive for years,” she said, “and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people, not only on our campus, but throughout the community.”

In this context, “divisive” is public-relations code for “racist AF,” by the way. And “source of frustration” means “everyone wants this thing gone.” 

Everyone, that is, except the Board of Governors. On their side was a 2015 state statute that required the monument to be placed right back where it was—or, if that was impossible, somewhere equally prominent. Folt did not want that to be McCorkle Place, Sam’s former home. 

At first, she and UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees pitched a $5 million “history and education center” to house Silent Sam in “context,” which went over like a lead balloon. Students called it a racist shrine; Confederacy-lovers wanted Sam back in his former glory. 

The Board of Governors told Folt to shelve that plan and start over. Folt was over it. 

On January 14, Folt told the BOG that she was resigning at the end of the semester. Then she immediately had Sam’s base torn from the ground and thrown into storage. It would never again sit in McCorkle Place. She’d see to that. 

Enraged, the BOG told her to leave by the end of the month. Off she went to head the University of Southern California—which is now enmeshed in a college-admissions scandal—with the Silent Sam matter presumably settled once and for all. 

But, of course, it wasn’t. 

The day before Thanksgiving, the Board of Governors announced that it had reached an agreement with the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to give the neo-Confederate nonprofit the Civil War participation trophy as well as $2.5 million to build a home for it. The local media—including the INDY—has covered this issue considerably in the last month, so there’s no need to delve into the details. The highlights: The BOG settled a lawsuit before it existed, knowing full well that the SCV had no case and didn’t even have the standing to sue. Then, the BOG hid from public scrutiny, refusing to even hold its meetings in person for fear of encountering pissed-off students and inquiring journalists. 

The fallout is only beginning: Last week, we learned that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation pulled a $1.5 million donation to UNC over the SCV mess—and, as UNC law professor Eric Muller noted on Twitter, the university stands to lose black faculty and students as well. 

Everything about Silent Sam and the SCV deal has been a disaster, equal parts hilarious, pathetic, and infuriating—made possible by white supremacy so ingrained and internalized that we barely recognize it when it’s staring us in the face. 

Folt was a lot of things in this story: a flawed protagonist, a well-paid cog in a machine, someone who moved here unaware that she was sticking her head in a political wood chipper. 

She also tried to begin reconciling the university’s troubled history with modernity. In 2015, for example, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees changed the name of Saunders Place to Carolina Hall. But state politics made further steps in that direction all but impossible. 

She’d either have to live with Silent Sam, or she’d have to leave. Ultimately, Folt left, and she took Sam with her. 

It was an imperfect solution for our story’s imperfect hero, but it drove the Board of Governors—not to mention neo-Confederates and white supremacists—nuts. And that made it a beautiful thing to watch. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at

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