The demonstration lasted a few minutes into the ceremony. Once the protestors left Memorial Hall, Chancellor Carol Folt said she was happy the protestors were able to voice their opinion.
“I think all of you feel like I do, that universities are places where students speak, and I am glad that they feel comfortable to come here and that we could all hear their important message,” Folt said.
Folt introduced UNC-system President Tom Ross on his final University Day in the role. Ross said he wanted to thank faculty, staff and students.
“(University Day) reminds us for what this University, and in particular this campus, stands. As it has been for more than two centuries, it has been a public university. And it must stay the University of the people,” he said.
Four UNC alumni received Distinguished Alumna and Alumnus Awards: Jacqueline Charles, Mona Frederick, Betty Hunt and Sarah Parker.
Charles is the Caribbean correspondent and senior Haiti reporter for the Miami Herald; she covered Haiti’s earthquake in 2010.
Frederick, the executive director of Vanderbilt University’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, oversaw the forming of a digital archive of materials based on the book “Who Speaks for the Negro.”
Hunt created and edited “The Mini Page,” a weekly newspaper made to engage children with news that appeals to readers of many ages.
Parker was an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court for 13 years and chief justice for eight.
The Edward Kidder Graham Faculty Service Award was given to Peter White, a professor of biology, for leading the North Carolina Botanical Garden from 1986 to 2014.
Aziz Sancar, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday, was also recognized by Folt.
Folt said a turning point for the University, starting five years ago, was emphasizing innovation.
“UNC’s leaders declare America’s first public university must be her most innovative,” Folt said.
Folt challenged students and faculty to innovate in the way classes are taught and to innovate across departments.
“Fast change is not always the hallmark of the Academy,” Folt said. “But the Academy should absolutely be able to handle it. We have been, and we always will be, change agents for good. But it has to start now.”
Real Silent Sam rally
June Beshea, an organizer of The Real Silent Sam Coalition, said the goal of the rally was to point out the hypocrisy of having Silent Sam on campus.
“This rally is supposed to go off of this idea I had,” Beshea said. “Fredrick Douglass has this speech, ‘What to a slave is Fourth of July?’ And we’re going to play off of that with, ‘What to the black woman is University Day?’ because we are not represented in that type of way.”
Shelby Dawkins-Law, former Graduate and Professional Student Federation president and third-year Ph.D. student in the Policy Leadership and School Improvement program in the School of Education, said the rally was important for questioning University Day celebrations.
“The point of this rally is to throw it in people’s faces on the day that we celebrate this University, that this University has lots of s—t that doesn’t need to be celebrated,” Dawkins-Law said.
Dawkins-Law, sitting at the foot of Silent Sam, said the University has a long history of racism.
“Just because there aren’t slaves working on these grounds anymore, it doesn’t mean that white supremacy isn’t still alive and real. It’s as alive and real as this statue I am sitting on,” she said.
Forty minutes into the rally, demonstrators lifted a black skirt onto the rifle of Silent Sam.
“We’re decorating this monument with a skirt to represent the Negro wench’s skirt who was whipped until it was in tatters, the Negro wench who was dragged from the shelter of a building over there, Battle Hall,” Dawkins-Law said.
Dawkins-Law said the rally was meant to show the monument really represents racism.
“When you dedicate a monument and brag about how you whipped a Negro wench while you dedicated it, you can’t possibly argue 102 years later that this monument wasn’t about what it’s about,” she said.
Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs and co-chairperson of the task force on UNC-Chapel Hill history, said he wants students to feel empowered and be heard.
“I thought what happened at today was appropriate,” he said.
UNC junior Sara Muharemovic said she thought the event was not well-timed.
“I think they have a right to protest, and that’s good that they’re taking action, but then I think that they should be more considerate of the occasion and maybe protest on, you know, another day,” she said.
Journalism professor Jock Lauterer said he thought public universities should welcome student protests.
“I was so proud that this University chose to have a measured and celebratory response instead of calling in the campus cops, like what could’ve happened at some universities and some other countries where free speech and the right of protest is not looked upon with favor,” he said.