UNC’s proposal to re-establish Silent Sam on campus has faced public denouncement and direct action from students, professors, alumni and more, both within the University and beyond it.
The University's plan calls for a new, high-security History and Education Center to house the Confederate monument at an estimated cost of $5.3 million upfront and over $800,000 per year. The plan is expected to be considered by the UNC Board of Governors today. If the proposal is approved by the BOG, it must also receive approval from the N.C. Historical Commission.
Graduate teaching assistants have withheld 2,300 final grades in protest of the proposal, according to the last tally given by organizers. Hundreds of professors from universities across the nation, along with UNC students and graduates, have supported the grade withholding protest and condemned the proposal.
Director of UNC Media Relations Joanne Peters Denny said in an email that the proposed center will fulfill a 2015 Board of Trustees resolution, which called for a “public space to house a permanent collection of UNC-Chapel Hill's history.”
“What the Chancellor and the Board have proposed is a History and Education Center to tell the full history of the University and contextualize it,” Peters Denny said. “Silent Sam would be just one exhibit, and it would be presented with its full history.”
Sharon Holland, a professor in the Department of American Studies, called this a watershed moment for UNC and for Southern institutions – a moment she thinks threatens the University’s position of moral leadership.
“Right now, I do believe that UNC-Chapel Hill is the only institution in the South contemplating a plan to put a Confederate monument back on campus, and that in and of itself is a retrograde stance that needs to be explained to the broader community of scholars who reside beyond our gates,” Holland said. “I’m worried about everyone. I’m worried about the value of a UNC degree.”
Holland is one signee of an open letter that, as of Thursday night, included 269 UNC faculty members and 728 faculty members from other universities nationwide. The letter strongly condemned any potential punishment of participants in the grade withholding protest.
“We, the undersigned (faculty), support the right of our graduate and post-undergraduate students to speak out against injustice and intolerance in all of its forms, including the proposal put forward by the Board of Trustees,” the letter read.
Another open letter signed by 230 of UNC’s current and former student-athletes stated opposition to the proposal. It included current basketball players Garrison Brooks, Kenny Smith Jr. and Janelle Bailey; NBA players Harrison Barnes, Brice Johnson and Kendall Marshall; 18 current football players; 36 current and former football players, including NFL running back Elijah Hood, and seven members of this year’s national championship-winning field hockey team.
“A monument to those who fought and killed to keep Black people enslaved has no place on our campus,” the letter stated. “White supremacy has no place on our campus.”
As of Dec. 14, a petition signed by 2,222 UNC graduates pledged no further donations to the University until a new plan is proposed to permanently remove Silent Sam from campus. The petition stated that it was sent to Chancellor Carol Folt and the BOT on Wednesday evening.
“The Board of Trustees and Chancellor Folt have prioritized the bigotry of a small number of major donors and right-wing politicians in developing their outrageous plan to spend more than $5 million of taxpayers' dollars to construct an on-campus shrine to the racism and oppression that Silent Sam represents,” the graduates' letter read.
In an open letter to parents and guardians of students, 116 professors and 183 instructors, staff members and graduate students from UNC recalled the events surrounding Silent Sam since its toppling by protesters on Aug. 20, stating that the faculty’s “pleas have not been heard.”
“By failing to remove Silent Sam from our campus, university leaders are making it impossible for us to do our jobs,” the letter stated. “They are forcing us to sacrifice Black students and others on our campus who feel intimidated in the face of explicit symbols of hate every single day.”
The letter referenced two resolutions passed by the Faculty Council on Dec. 7. One of those resolutions called for a committee of faculty to be formed that has a voice in deciding on any plans related to Silent Sam’s disposition. The other resolution recommended that the University retract its current proposal.
The University’s website states that the planned History and Education Center will cover topics ranging from the founding of the University to Jim Crow laws to the rise of the public research university.
Opposition from within
As of Dec. 13, over 430 UNC graduate students across departments had signed on to the grade-withholding action in protest of the Silent Sam proposal.
Graduate students have also taken issue with the proposal’s recommendation of a new 40-person, system-wide police force “to address large protests that involve unlawful behavior,” with estimated costs of $2 million per year and $500,000 for equipment.
In an email last week to graduate students, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Kevin Guskiewicz and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert Blouin said that the withholding of grades violates the University’s instructional responsibilities. The email also stated that instructors who have used their roles in the classroom to ask students to take a stand on the strike have violated those students’ First Amendment rights.
“Please consider that your failure to meet your responsibilities to your students, including timely submission of final grades, will result in serious consequences,” the email stated.
Blouin echoed a similar sentiment on the strike in an email to the University’s Deans that day.
In a letter sent to Guskiewicz on Wednesday, eight professors on the 13-member Dean’s Faculty Diversity Advisory Group asked him to act with leniency and compassion toward instructors and graduate students for “taking this moral stance against white supremacy.”
The student-led movement opposing the proposal has received statements of support from numerous groups, including the UNC Association of Student Governments, Duke University’s Faculty Union and UNC-Charlotte’s Student Government Association.
UNC art professor Hong-An Truong is one of the 997 signees of a letter from faculty across universities expressing support for the grade strike. Truong said she believes that Chancellor Folt and the Trustees should be putting their own jobs on the line and pushing to remove the monument from campus instead of the graduate students.
Truong said the University has not listened to faculty and students who serve as leaders on campus.
“I think the University is hiding behind a law that, at its root, is unjust,” Truong said. “We are academics. We are scholars. We know our history. There’s a role for civil disobedience and for disobeying the law when it is unjust.”
Chancellor Folt repeated during the Dec. 3 BOT meeting that while she and the Trustees would prefer to move the monument off-campus, a 2015 state law prevents them from doing so.
The appendices stated that the current proposal follows the law by, among other things, keeping the monument in its original jurisdiction of the Town of Chapel Hill. By installing the statue in Odum Village, a former residence hall on South Campus, it stated that the law’s requirement of returning the monument to “a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access” was fulfilled, remaining on campus as “as an important artifact of the University’s history.”
Erika Wilson, a UNC law professor, was one of 54 Black faculty members at UNC who signed a letter in September opposing Silent Sam's return to campus.
She said that the law UNC has referenced is relatively new and hasn’t been put to the test. Wilson referenced the Civil Rights Act’s protection of employees from discrimination as one compelling argument against Silent Sam being allowed back on campus under federal law.
“The monument does create a racially hostile environment,” Wilson said. “Especially when you consider all that’s happened in terms of the way the monument has attracted white supremacist groups, who come on-campus to show their support for the monument in ways that can be frightening to students and faculty of color.”
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