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With 15 days left as UNC's chancellor, Folt looks back at her controversial tenure

folt university day
Chancellor Carol Folt smiles as she walks in the University Day procession from South Building to Memorial Hall on October 11, 2016.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Folt's announcement was followed by a statement of support from the UNC Board of Trustees. The statement was from only the Board members who signed it. The story has been updated with the correct information. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

At almost noon Tuesday, Chancellor Carol Folt told reporters she still has a lot to accomplish in her final semester at UNC.

“I certainly hope that I’ll have a chance to do what I have set out to do,” Folt said in a conference call with reporters. “I think we’ve had a lot of momentum going.”

But hours later, behind closed doors in the C.D. Spangler Building Tuesday, the UNC-system Board of Governors discussed her resignation. 

The BOG approved the resignation but announced it would be effective Jan. 31, 2019. This timeline disappointed Folt, she said in a statement, but that she has loved her almost six years at UNC.

“Working with our students, faculty and staff has inspired me every day. It is their passion and dedication, and the generosity of our alumni and community, that drive this great University,” Folt said in a statement following the BOG's announcement. “I believe that Carolina’s next chancellor will be extremely fortunate, and I will always be proud to be a Tar Heel.”

Folt announced her plans to resign on Monday afternoon, as well as a call to remove the Silent Sam’s pedestal from McCorkle Place. The Confederate monument base was removed early Tuesday morning. 

In an interview with The News and Observer, BOG Chairperson Harry Smith said he would have encouraged a discussion about the actions Folt was planning to take. 

"It's a bit stunning based on how this has gone that UNC-Chapel Hill felt the need to take this kind of draconian action, and I think that's what it is," Smith said in the interview. "And so when you start scheduling cranes at night and key and critical stakeholders aren't involved, it's just unfortunate."

Folt's announcement on Monday was followed with a statement of support from some members of the Board of Trustees, praising Folt’s service to The University and her “remarkable energy and deep passion to countless initiatives.”

A statement from the BOG came shortly after, condemning Folt’s lack of transparency, saying the BOG was not aware of Folt’s planned departure until her announcement. 

The BOG reiterated that the process regarding Silent Sam’s future remains unchanged, including the March 15 deadline.

“The Board of Governors has fought tooth and nail to keep the statue here and to kind of have things their way even though students and grad students in particular at this University have been very vocal in their opposition to having the statue," said senior Patty Matos at a "Victory Rally" Tuesday night. "I’m not surprised. I’m disappointed I guess.”

Former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said he doesn’t think the BOG is making the best decision shortening the timeline, but he is not surprised based on the board’s initial reaction.

Like Folt, Thorp dealt with controversy during his chancellorship, resigning at a contentious time during UNC’s academic-athletic scandal. Complex political decisions for the University often come down to the law, and the law gives the BOG the ultimate power, Thorp said. 

“I think (calling for Silent Sam’s removal) was a very courageous act, and I’m proud to know Carol Folt, and proud that she’s the chancellor of my alma mater,” Thorp said. 

‘It’s a great time’

Folt has 15 days left in office, and interim UNC-system President Bill Roper will select an interim chancellor in the time that he sees fit, the BOG announced Tuesday.

While Folt’s decision to resign came as a surprise to many, in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, she said she felt it was the right time. 

She’s launched initiatives such as The Campaign for Carolina and The Blueprint for Next. Thorp said Folt has made great improvements in University funding and research. 

“It’s a great time for them to get a new chancellor because that chancellor gets to take advantage of this great momentum and go for the next five or so years,” Thorp said.

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She said she hasn’t had a lot of time to decide what’s next. She has continued research during her time as chancellor — she's managed to publish a research paper and a book on writing science proposals this year — and is a tenured faculty member at the University. It’s something she could see herself doing more of, she said.

“I really love it. I never really wanted to leave that research,” Folt said. “I love teaching. I love being at universities.”

‘Enormous personal sacrifice’

In 2013, Folt walked into UNC leadership as the University’s first female chancellor in the midst of the academic scandal. Then came Title IX. And then, Silent Sam. 

The legislature made it difficult for the University to take action regarding Silent Sam, but that’s why Governor Roy Cooper offered Folt a pathway to remove the statue, said Ferrell Guillory, professor in the School of Media and Journalism and founder of the Program on Public Life. 

She chose to leave the monument up, and on Aug. 20, the monument was forcefully pulled down by a group of 250 demonstrators. The fall 2018 semester was filled with multiple protests and nearly 30 arrests on UNC’s campus in relation to Silent Sam. 

“I wish the statue had come down earlier. I thought the governor offered her a pathway,” said Guillory. “...All the resolutions, and all of the faculty letters showed that over time, she didn’t move as expeditiously and as forcefully as many students and faculty wanted her to move. And she was under a lot of pressure from external forces.”

In December, Folt and the Board of Trustees proposed to house Silent Sam in a $5.3 million “History and Education Center” on South Campus. The Board of Governors struck down the suggestion and decided to work with the administration to formulate a new plan. 

Folt said her decision to remove the monument’s base is not connected to her resignation. And while she said she regrets not getting to directly talk to as many people about the monument as she wishes, she doesn’t regret following the law. 

“If individuals start choosing in a leadership position which law to face and which not to face, that’s very dangerous precedent,” Folt said. “But that said, public safety is still my biggest — that is my responsibility. So in the last few months, when we no longer had a standing monument, and we had a full on safety report that said this is not good for public safety, I feel like I was able to take that action and still do it within the law.”

Guillory said that issues such as Silent Sam should play out on a big university campus, despite controversy. 

“In many ways, it's natural, even uncomfortable if issues of race, social change and free speech play out on our campus,” Guillory said. “Sometimes that makes the political authorities nervous. But it’s important for the state, it’s important for the country that we, all of us, that we preserve strong, public education.”

Thorp said Folt will be remembered as the Chancellor who made an “enormous personal sacrifice” to remove the Confederate monument.

“None of that would have happened without the work the activists have done to get the statue down and to make this an issue in the first place,” Thorp said. 

‘Necessary and right’

Despite a divergent view on Folt’s departure from the BOG and BOT, Folt has received support from student group leaders such as Graduate and Professional Student Federation President Manny Hernandez and Student Body President Savannah Putnam. 

“The Chancellor showed true leadership yesterday by ordering the remnants of the statue out of view as quickly as possible,” the GPSF statement said. “Throughout her tenure, Chancellor Folt has made decisions surrounding the disposition of the Confederate Statue that have negatively impacted the student body. However, now is the time to look forward to the future. Chancellor Folt — We thank you for your service to this University.”

Putnam’s statement praised Folt for remaining resolute through scandals, crisis and historical changes on campus. The statement said Folt has led UNC with her core mission in mind: “the betterment of Carolina’s student body.”

The statement asked BOG leadership to choose a chancellor that puts students first, not politics. 

“Do not do Carolina a disservice by putting someone in Folt’s place who does not recognize the most fundamental pillar upon which Carolina is founded, that students always come first,” the statement said. 

Campaign for Carolina leadership also put a statement supporting the Chancellor’s decision to remove the remnants of the monument, calling the decision “necessary and right.”

The message also noted that the campaign has raised more that $2.4 billion of the $4.25 billion goal. 

“Since arriving at Carolina six years ago, Chancellor Folt has strengthened our university in many ways. Better access and affordability for students,” the statement said. “Record-setting levels of research. A student body that has never been stronger. Repeated accolades as one of the nation’s top public research universities.”

‘Ray of sunshine’

Sometimes Folt scrolls through her countless selfies to look at her time at UNC. There are loads of them, enough to cover a wall, she said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel. 

One of her favorite memories is her first convocation where UNC students taught her some of the chants. She laughed as she recalled trying to move as fast as she could to keep up with the cheer where students spell Carolina with their arms. 

She also said she loves the graduations, watching the blue robes pour into Kenan Stadium. 

“I’ve got 30,000 students, every one of them is a ray of sunshine,” Folt said in the conference call. “I’ve got one of the most incredible faculties in the world, fifth-greatest in research funding, that’s continued to increase every year in spite of this controversy.”

Her time of leadership at UNC has not come without stress, but she’s proud of her administration. 

“When things come at me, I think of the fortune I have to be in the position to try to help other people,” Folt said. 

She said she’s privileged to have acknowledged the role slavery played in the University founding, and to have been involved in the 2015 renaming of Saunders Hall. And she’s proud of her role in the creation of the History Task Force — what she believes can lead the way for contextualizing history at various universities. 

She said she hopes her work can continue to bring forward the truth, and a more complete history of UNC.

“Even in dark times, we say, 'We are of and for the people, and we are working towards a mission.'”

Maeve Sheehey, Preston Lennon and Elizabeth Moore contributed reporting. 


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