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Wednesday January 19th

A 'social construct': UNC Biology Department releases statement condemning return of Silent Sam

Carmen Lyles, a first-year chemistry major, exits Coker Hall after eating lunch in the lobby on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. The Biology Department released a statement on Silent Sam, demonstrating support for marginalized students.
Buy Photos Carmen Lyles, a first-year chemistry major, exits Coker Hall after eating lunch in the lobby on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. The Biology Department released a statement on Silent Sam, demonstrating support for marginalized students.

UNC's Biology Department posted an official statement on their website last week opposing the return of Silent Sam to McCorkle Place. 

The biology department decided to publicize their stance after 88 percent of participants in a department-wide survey voted in favor of releasing a statement. The survey received over 100 responses from proportionate amounts of faculty, staff, graduate students and postdocs in the department. 

“The biology community stands by our departmental commitment to foster a diverse and inclusive teaching and research environment," the statement says. "Given its history and 1913 dedication in the name of racism, Silent Sam must not be returned to the center of campus where it has isolated and intimidated members of our community and limited their potential to learn, contribute and thrive. We therefore advocate for its placement in a location where its history can be presented in a contextualized manner and where it no longer stands as a barrier to learning and discovery within our community.” 

In an attempt to represent the diverse opinions of the biology community, the survey first asked participants if they supported issuing a statement or not. If the participant voted yes, he or she was asked to choose between two possible versions of the statement, and if the participant voted no, he or she was given the opportunity to communicate their feelings or reasons for opposition. 

Of those who voted against the statement, the reoccurring sentiment was that biologists have no place to comment in political discussions, said Amy Gladfelter, professor and associate chairperson for diversity in the biology department. Others gave dissenting opinions that advocated for Silent Sam’s role in American history and patriotism. 

“You might give some thought to the little discussed issue of how do we balance legacies of the horribly racist times in our Southern history, and the patriotism and self-sacrifice that many have historically seen as the message of Sam," Robert Peet, a research professor in the biology department, said in an email. "I agree that we should remove the Silent Sam statue for the reasons articulated in the Biology Department statement, but I feel we should also try to be broader in our perspectives than seems currently to be the trend."

Prior to conducting the survey, a subgroup of department faculty met and collaboratively drafted the two versions of the statement, Gladfelter said. The meeting was held as a forum for members of the biology community to share their opinions and deliberate on how to move forward as a department.

“It was basically put on to make sure that people had a community in which they could respond together and not feel like they were all alone in their grappling with this situation,” said Amy Shaub Maddox, a professor in the biology department.  

While writing the statement, the subgroup decided the primary purpose of the statement would be to support marginalized students who may feel alienated, offended or uncomfortable with the Confederate monument on campus. 

“We wanted to really show our students that we care about this community, their community and their sense of comfort here," Gladfelter said. "We’re aware of what is going on on campus, and we want this to be an inclusive community." 

During their discussion, the subgroup also considered principles of biology, including the conflict between science and race, as rationale for their stance against Silent Sam. 

“Our current concept of race is really a social construct," Gladfelter said. "Genetic data show that two people are more different from one another than necessarily people of different races. There’s not really a scientific basis for race. The statue went up in a period of Eugenics when there were attempts to make a scientific argument for race."

Although this reasoning was not included in the official statement, Gladfelter explained that the history of racism and the department’s scientific perspective were integral factors in their ultimate decision to publicly denounce Silent Sam’s return. 

The subgroup meeting and following survey helped her department have important and constructive conversations about the monument, she said. Rather than act as a polarizing force between colleagues, the statement was a source of compromise and inclusiveness for the biology department. 

“I think in the end, it actually contributed to community building rather than taking away from it,” Gladfelter said.

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