Just like that, it was gone. All that was left was an empty foundation where the remnants of the most divisive symbol in Chapel Hill had stood for a century. It had been removed without ceremony, by rope and crane and men in construction vests working in the dead of night, a mere six hours from announcement to disappearance. 

Given Silent Sam’s long, fraught history, it was almost anticlimactic. 

After decades of complaints from students and faculty, after years of escalating protests culminating in the toppling of the Confederate statue in August, after months of handwringing from UNC officials about what to do next—both with Sam himself and with the monument’s base, still in McCorkle Place, its plaques commemorating students who fought to preserve white supremacy in the “War Between the States”—all it took was a moment of courage, or a flash of defiance, or simply having nothing left to lose, to finish a job begun by antiracism activists long ago.

On Monday afternoon, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt informed the UNC Board of Governors during a closed meeting that she was resigning at the end of the semester. Nearly six years earlier, Folt had left Dartmouth to become UNC’s first female leader, taking over a school reeling from an academic fraud scandal. In Chapel Hill, she often found herself navigating the state’s increasingly conservative and sometimes hostile political climate. But over the last two years, the turmoil surrounding Silent Sam had taken center stage and become a source of frustration. 

She didn’t like the statue or what it stood for—what Ivy Leaguer would? Her students and faculty didn’t either. But her bosses—the General Assembly and Board of Governors—wanted it to stay. Folt was stuck. 

But no more. Now she was free. 

In announcing her departure, she flaunted that freedom—and also wrote the first line of her obituary: Not only was she leaving, she said, but she was removing Silent Sam’s base on her way out. 

“As chancellor,” she wrote, “the safety of the UNC-Chapel Hill community is my clear, unequivocal and non-negotiable responsibility. The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment. No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe.”

Following the deadly white-supremacist march in Charlottesville in August 2017 and the toppling of a Confederate monument in Durham a week later, pressure had mounted on Folt to do something about Sam. There were round-the-clock protests, counter-protests, arrests, white-supremacist rallies, police in riot gear deploying tear gas, an activist smearing blood on the statue—the kind of tumult over which no university chancellor wants to preside. 

Through it all, she seemed paralyzed, saying her hands were tied by a 2015 law that forbade moving so-called objects of remembrance. Even when Cooper offered her an out—a public-safety exemption—she declined, worried about antagonizing the General Assembly and Board of Governors. 

Activists viewed her inaction as complicity. Last summer, they took matters into their own hands. 

Folt dutifully called the August 20 downing of Silent Sam “unlawful and dangerous.” But she also didn’t seem sad to see it go: “The monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus, but throughout the community.”

But that asinine state law was still there, and it still required Sam to be placed somewhere prominent. Folt didn’t want it to be McCorkle Place, UNC’s “front door,” so, along with the campus’s Board of Trustees, she pitched a $5 million “history and education center” to house it in “context.” This pleased no one. The activists who’d pulled Sam down called it a shrine; Confederate fetishists and conservative groups wanted the monument restored to its former glory; last month, the Board of Governors balked at the price tag, and ordered Folt to go back to the drawing board and report back in March. 

This time, it was Folt who took matters into her own hands. 

Caught unaware, the Board of Governors was enraged at her decision, which “undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity,” chairman Harry Smith said in a statement Monday night. (Having angered the board, Folt announced Tuesday that she’d be leaving in two weeks.) 

By then, though, it was too late. The work crews were already on their way. 

Folt’s move was legally questionable, according to UNC associate professor of public law and government Adam Lovelady, and the law seems to require its relocation to a prominent site. But it’s not clear who will expend the political capital to enforce that law. Cooper, who praised Folt, isn’t going to do it. Does the GOP really want to? 

It’s one thing to preserve an existing statue in the name of history. It’s quite another to re-erect a Confederate monument, with all it symbolizes, in the year 2019. Is that the battle North Carolina Republicans want to take on heading into 2020, when they’ll share a ballot with Donald Trump? 

There’s much to be said about Folt’s tenure at UNC. But at the end of the day, it’s quite likely she’ll have been the one to have forever banished Silent Sam from campus. And that’s a hell of a way to go out. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey Billman by phone at 919-286-1972, by email at jbillman@indyweek.com, or on Twitter: @indyweek. 

2 replies on “Carol Folt Took the Law Into Her Hands on Her Way Out the Door. Good for Her.”

  1. Macron so obviously sees a full constitutional republic as Elysium.

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