The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday April 2nd

Op-ed: A message to the chancellor

Good morning Chancellor Folt,

I am writing to express my concern over a trend I have noticed in your messages to the UNC campus community. I fully understand the challenging position you are in as the Chancellor of a diverse and public university campus; however, I have grown increasingly concerned that your emails are not sending a full-throated message of love and support for our students, faculty and staff who belong to a historically marginalized group. I am especially concerned about students of color and Jewish and Muslim students feeling unsafe and unsupported.

You sent out a condemnation of a flyer that was posted on campus. The first paragraph states: "We have become aware of a threatening flyer that has been posted around campus and disseminated through social media expressing acts of violence to supporters of President Trump. We take these matters very seriously. The flyer and its message are the antithesis of the values that are the foundation of our University. It is not designed to spark civil discourse or encourage thoughtful debate. Its intentions are to incite violence, and there is no place for that here or in our society." 

This read to me as the strongest condemnation your office has issued over the past three and a half years. I had not seen the flyer on campus, but I Googled it expecting to be disturbed by its content. Honestly, I found it to be rather innocuous as far as radical political flyers go. My religious tradition teaches me to practice nonviolence even when attacked, and I do not support the violence suggested by the flyer. In context, however, I found the strength of your condemnation strange given the types of conciliatory messages we have received regarding violence against people from marginalized communities. Here is what I mean:

Back in October of 2015, your office published a message about an upcoming rally in support of the Confederate Monument on campus. After mentioning democratic exchange of ideas and the desire for public safety, it concluded with this statement: "Carolina has a long tradition of freedom of speech. We truly believe differing views can and should be shared in open debate and discourse and we hope all participants will honor this aspiration." 

There is a fine line between free speech and violent hate speech, and those who draw on the symbolism and history of the Confederacy frequently cross it. Just four months prior to this, a white terrorist walked into Mother Emanuel Church and murdered nine Black parishioners after donning the Confederate flag on social media and expressing support for the same principles this pro-confederate group was rallying behind. I find it troubling that we did not include a condemnation of white supremacy and the types of violent speech backed up by a long history of physical brutality that often accompanies such pro-confederate rallies. Of course, as a University, we encourage free speech and the free exchange of ideas. But why stand strongly against the imaginary violence portrayed in the recent flyer, while not coming out strongly against the actual violence perpetrated against people of color by pro-confederacy groups?

In September of 2016, you sent out a message about the protests in Charlotte after the killing of Keith Scott. Your message said, "On behalf of the Carolina Community, I want to extend our deepest sympathies to those who have been affected and ask that peaceful and constructive dialogue replace the violence and unrest that has overtaken so much of our nation." 

I interpreted this message as a condemnation of rioters expressing their anger and fear at a law enforcement system that frequently uses excessive force, harming and often killing people of color without cause or justification and usurping their constitutional right to a trial. Your message contained no condemnation of the systemic police violence that led to the riots, however. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said "it would be morally irresponsible (to condemn riots) ... without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society...that cause individuals to feel that they have no alternative but to engage in violent rebellions to get attention."

In your post-election message, you said: "In the past week, we have heard inspiring examples of faculty using the opportunity to have students of differing political beliefs share their views and engage in respectful dialogue on what it means to be a democracy. We also have heard a few troubling examples in which students felt uncomfortable expressing beliefs that differed from the instructor’s or fellow classmates. We take all these matters very seriously." 

I found this troubling because it failed to condemn the violent and unacceptable rhetoric that marked President Trump's campaign. I believe it is the duty of faculty and students of conscience to make that kind of rhetoric unacceptable on campus. If students who voted for President Trump felt they could not express violent and racist opinions similar to the ones he touted during the campaign, I am perfectly happy with that. President Trump and his supporters frequently crossed the line from free speech into violent hate speech and they should be made aware of where that line is at least as frequently as anti-Trump students are tone-policed for voicing opposition that is in no way more violent. You concluded the same by encouraging students "to advocate effectively and to work toward the change each of us seeks in the world." The problem is that the change that Trump supporters seek in the world is to eliminate the presence in this country of several swaths of our campus community. How can we encourage those students to seek the change they want in the world when the change they seek is threatening the lives of other segments of our campus community?

Lastly, I found your recent email on Jan. 29 about President Trump's travel ban to be less than supportive of our immigrant and Muslim population. While you acknowledged that many felt frightened, affirmed our commitment to "diverse and inclusive" student body and assured our international population that they are "essential to our vibrant Carolina community," you did not condemn the Islamophobia and xenophobia and the fear- and hate-mongering that led to the travel ban, and the documented acts of violence against Muslims and immigrant populations that have occurred as a result of this type of incitement.

I know that I am not alone in these concerns and perceptions. I have spoken with several of my colleagues who feel similarly. I will encourage them to express their concerns to you as well. I wish to reiterate that I do not support the violence suggested by the flyer. But taking your messages to the campus community as a whole, it seems you have been much more reticent to condemn other violences as strongly. This communicates subtly to our community members that while you will come to the defense of Trump supporters and neo-Nazis, you may not come as strongly to the defense of the people whose lives have been threatened and/or taken by white supremacy, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. 

I am sure this is not your intent, which is one of the reasons why I felt it necessary to send you my thoughts. I hope that we can continue to create an inclusive campus community that is especially protective of populations that have been historically marginalized and threatened by forces of hate in our society.


Stephen Stacks

PhD candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill

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