When the Board of Trustees for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced a proposal to build a new, $5.3 million history and education center to house the toppled Confederate monument known as Silent Sam earlier this week, reactions were swift—and overwhelmingly negative.
Trustees were responding to a request from the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the UNC system, for “a lawful and lasting path that protects public safety, preserves the monument and its history and allows the university to focus on its core mission of education, research, economic stimulation and creating the next generation of scholars.”
Their solution: Build a new facility on the fringe of campus to house Silent Sam and teach the university’s history. On social media and in public statements, students and alumni likened this new building to a “shrine” for Silent Sam and the white supremacy it stands for. At least eleven hundred alumni have pledged to withhold donations until Silent Sam is permanently removed from campus. Teaching assistants and faculty members went on strike, withholding thousands of final grades and are threatening not to teach when the spring semester begins if the Board of Governors approves the trustees’ recommendation, which the BOG is expected to consider during its December 14 meeting.
Critics will likely find much more to be upset about in the appendices that accompany it, which detail the recommendations of security professionals the university engaged to weigh the safety implications of restoring the monument. Among the panel’s suggestions: a system-wide mobile police force “to prevent or respond to civil disorder and violence at future campus events.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt has said that public safety was her top priority in handling the monument. Taken together, the trustees’ proposal and the safety panel’s recommendations suggest that controlling protests is part and parcel to that goal.
The panel comprised five law enforcement officials who “evaluated the general security climate on campus, the specific security challenges presented by the Monument and the large-scale protests involving opposing factions that it attracts, and specific alternative locations for the Monument from a public safety and security standpoint.”
The panel concluded, and trustees agreed, that returning the monument to its previous spot in McCorkle Place would be dangerous. During Monday’s trustees meeting, Folt repeatedly said that she and the board would prefer to move “the artifacts” (Silent Sam, which protesters tore down on August 20, and bronze plaques that adorn its base, which still stands) off-campus, but she couldn’t because of a state law passed in 2015.
The university is being cautious in its reading of the law, which restricts the relocation of “objects of remembrance.” Under the law, the North Carolina Historical Commission must approve any relocation—meaning the trustees will also need that body’s approval to bring its proposal to fruition. The law allows for objects to be relocated to preserve them or to make way for construction, but mandates that they “be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.”
UNC trustees plan to build the history and education center at a former student housing site known as Odum Village on the southern edge of campus. It may not seem like a similarly prominent location to McCorkle Place, but UNC general counsel Mark Merritt says it will be a hub of growth on campus, and it’s near a planned light rail stop. Still, there are potential optics problems: The site is near a synagogue and, according to the UNC Black Student Movement, is “a significant location for Black students to live and congregate.”
Asked why trustees believe the monument can’t be moved off-campus, UNC spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny directed the INDY to a passage in the trustees’ report that states that, by keeping the monument on campus, “there can be no question that it remains ‘within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.’”
The trustees did not, apparently, consider leaving Silent Sam wherever it is—even though, as their report notes, “most people who wrote to us said they want the Monument permanently removed or moved to a location either off-campus or within a contextualized setting on campus.” Doing so would conflict both with state law and with the Board of Governors’ request for a plan that preserves the monument, Denny says.
“I understand there are strong emotions about this proposal,” Folt tweeted earlier this week. “As the nation’s first public university, Carolina has a long and complicated history we must tell. We are recommending to build a center to tell all of that history, which includes the Confederate Monument.”
A new, state-of-the-art building was the best solution from a security standpoint, the safety experts concluded, and the majority of trustees agreed that it would also best satisfy the law and the BOG’s request. On Monday, all but two trustees present voted for the plan despite the safety panel’s own assessment that the university “faces a high risk of violence, civil disorder, and property damage if the monument is restored to campus” and that the “risk to campus safety can be mitigated but not eliminated” by placing the monument in a newly constructed building.
The new facility would also allow the university to place more restrictions on protests over the monument, the experts noted. While McCorkle Place is a public forum—where only narrow time, place, and manner restrictions (for example, you can’t block traffic) on speech could be imposed—the history and education center would likely be considered a non-public space where the university could impose content-neutral restrictions, such as limiting hours of visitation, crowd size, and regulating what items can be brought in or requiring visitors to go through scanners or bag checks.
Citing the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, the safety panel says on-campus protests are becoming more volatile across the country and few campus police departments—including UNC Police—are equipped to handle them. The greatest risk, the panel said, is the “threat of violence by extremist elements imbedded inside protest and counter-protest groups.” They know this because they “researched the backgrounds of individual protesters” and found most were not affiliated with the university. (It’s unclear how the panel decided whom to research; Denny says she has no more information than trustees’ publicly available proposal.)
To that end, the panel recommends a “mobile force” composed of forty officers that could be deployed to any of the seventeen UNC campuses across the state. The panel estimates the force would require about $500,000 in equipment, plus $2 million in annual operating costs.
It also suggests UNC Police expand its crowd-control, protest-management, and intelligence-gathering capabilities. According to the report, UNC has “already begun the process of making necessary changes to enhance the capability of the UNC Police in these important respects.” (Denny declined to discuss “security tactics.”)
The department currently has 79 officers covering the 729-acre main Chapel Hill campus, 40,000 UNC community members, and satellite locations. UNC Police have mutual aid agreements with about a dozen agencies. The safety panel says support from other agencies is “tenuous,” though, noting that Chapel Hill and Carrboro police can’t be counted on to help protect the monument.
The recommendations come after much scrutiny over how UNC police and supporting agencies have handled protests in McCorkle Place. At a recent Silent Sam demonstration, UNC enlisted the help of the Greensboro Police Department’s civil emergency unit, whose officers protected members of a neo-Confederate group and pepper-sprayed and rammed bicycles into to counter-protesters. Last year, Silent Sam protesters discovered an undercover UNC officer had been monitoring them and lying about his identity.
It’s unclear if the BOG will also consider the safety panel’s mobile force recommendation when it takes up the trustees’ proposal for the history and education center. The trustees clearly think it’s important. As the proposal notes: “We believe that this recommendation warrants serious consideration and review by the Board of Governors.”
Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.