During the last days of the 2018 fall semester, a collective of graduate students responded to a call to withhold final grades in light of the proposed Board of Trustees plan for the housing of Silent Sam. The proposed plan came with a number of appendices and indicated the need for a mobile systemwide police force to address campus unrest. In addition, the plan did nothing to attend to the legacy of white supremacy for which the artifact stands. It was by all accounts, in terms of national public disapprobation and community sentiment, a complete and utter disaster.
In truth, more than any other single action on the part of the administration since we have been addressing the question of Sam’s presence among us in the last two years, the action to withhold grades did produce a positive result. Why?
The answer is rather simple. The purpose of collective action is to bring pointed and intense attention to a problem. So many in our community worried about the potential harm to undergraduates that they stepped over the real genius of the plan: to use what little power students, faculty and staff have in a system that has refused over the course of the last year to listen to its own constituency.
In short, by not speaking with graduate students and coming up with a credible way forward, the administration was potentially creating what would become an immediate and felt “hot mess.” The potential for chaos compelled a series of meetings addressing community concerns as the crisis became acute in the hours leading up to the Board of Governors meeting. What was at stake was profoundly altered – instead of wondering how to respond to the Sam’s presence among us, the central question became what it should have been all along: how far will we go to preserve the hateful legacy of white supremacy on our campus?
Our graduate students at UNC returned me to the most profound lesson of what it means to be a mentor. We must know when that delicate balance between student and teacher turns, and we must honor it – our students asked for advice, help and support as they proposed to lead us to some other endpoint. My job in the process as a mentor was to support them as best I could through this crisis. When your students begin to lead, you should try to follow.
I also understood something else. As a faculty member who works on social justice issues, I give lectures and speak to students on the weekly. But it is our graduate students who are on the front lines of implementing those lessons – they are the ones in recitation, in the archive and in office hours who have to deal with the effect of social justice work. This is very hard and important work indeed, work for which they are inadequately compensated and work that is disproportionately felt by minority and women students. They have intimate knowledge of the problem at hand and can, in many ways, direct us toward viable solutions. But we must trust their leadership.
Sharon P. Holland
Townsend Ludington Distinguished Endowed Term Professor in American Studies
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