When Harry Smith’s resignation takes effect in October, multiple positions critical to the functioning of UNC and N.C. higher education will be staffed by leaders whose predecessors dealt with the aftermath of Silent Sam’s toppling last fall.
Smith is the chairperson of the Board of Governors, which oversees all 16 public universities in the UNC System.
T. Greg Doucette had a voting position on the Board in 2008 as its student representative. He said when the modern Board was created in the 1970s, it was designed to craft agendas and think big picture, while leaving day-to-day control to the individual universities.
“And that changed pretty dramatically when the GOP took over,” he said.
Since 2008, the number of members on the Board has been reduced by the N.C. Legislature, and partisanship on the Board has swung heavily to Republicans.
“You’ve got this always-been-political body that is now more openly political than it has been in the past,” Doucette said. “At the same time, you’ve got a General Assembly that has been very active in trying to micromanage the universities.”
Smith has been labeled one of the board’s staunchest partisans in the past, but his views on Silent Sam have taken a 180 degree turn this past year.
At a Board meeting in May, Smith said his initial calls to resurrect the statue were probably “quick and uneducated.”
“Having taken the time, energy and effort and talking to a lot of people, I have tremendous faith and trust in — it’s my view and opinion as one member that that’s not the right path,” he said regarding the state's return to McCorkle Place.
After the statue left McCorkle, UNC and the Board of Governors took turns figuring out where it should be permanently housed. While UNC worked on a plan for a few months, UNC-System President Margaret Spellings resigned, marking the first vacancy in a string of resignations from high-profile leadership positions.
In December, UNC put forward an idea to construct a multi-million dollar building on South Campus and display the statue there. Smith and the Board of Governors shot the plan down and assumed responsibility for Silent Sam.
Former UNC Chancellor Carol Folt resigned shortly after that, and a decision on Silent Sam’s future was postponed indefinitely in May. A five-member group of Board members are collaborating with UNC leadership to take the next steps.
The interim System president, Bill Roper, will serve until June 2020.
“Silent Sam is under the care of UNC-Chapel Hill,” Roper said at a September Board meeting, when asked to confirm media reports that Silent Sam is under a tarp in a lot near the Horace Williams Airport.
“You’ll have to check with them about that,” he said.
At the meeting in September, Smith described the situation in N.C. higher education as somewhat of a perfect storm recently.
Beyond Silent Sam, Smith referred to school shootings and hurricanes. According to media reports, part of the reason he decided to resign was dwindling energy for the position.
“There is a crisis du jour every single week in the UNC System,” he said. “Some are large. Some are small.”