The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday September 26th

Editorial: Takeaways from the DTH's settlement with the UNC System

DTH Graphic. DTH Media Corp., parent company of The Daily Tar Heel, settled its lawsuit against the UNC System over alleged violations of state Open Meetings Law.
Buy Photos DTH Graphic. DTH Media Corp., parent company of The Daily Tar Heel, settled its lawsuit against the UNC System over alleged violations of state Open Meetings Law.

On Monday, DTH Media Corp., parent company of The Daily Tar Heel, settled its lawsuit against the UNC System over alleged violations of state Open Meetings Law. 

DTH Media Corp. filed the suit last year after five members of the UNC System Board of Governors signed an op-ed that called into question whether the Silent Sam settlements were properly vetted in the public eye.

For more information on the Silent Sam settlements, read this timeline.

You can find more details on DTH Media Corp.'s settlement agreement with the UNC System here.

Here’s what the Editorial Board learned after reviewing the documents released through the settlement, what it all means and why it matters.

Our biggest takeaways

How much did the administration know?

After the settlement was reached, the University maintained that “the settlement was not presented to the Interim Chancellor or to the Board of Trustees for approval” — rather, it was negotiated and approved by members of the Board of Governors. 

But the UNC System's statement revealed that one of the four individuals involved in negotiations with the SCV was Clayton Somers, vice chancellor for public affairs and secretary of the University. Somers “worked directly with and assisted Holmes in responding to the SCV,” the statement said, and was present at the meeting when the settlement was approved.

Even if the settlement was not formally presented to Guskiewicz or the BOT for approval, could the involvement of a senior University administrator mean the University was, to some degree, aware of the settlement and weighed in on the negotiations? 

Something is fishy.

At a Dec. 6, 2019, meeting of the Faculty Council, faculty asked Guskiewicz directly if members of the Board of Trustees or administrative leadership were consulted about or asked to approve the BOG’s settlement with the SCV.

Guskiewicz denied that the University was involved in the settlement process — it was a “Board of Governors decision.”

Was Guskiewicz lying, or was he lied to? Which is worse? 

If he knew about Somers’ involvement and pretended otherwise, it would be a breach of trust. 

If a senior administrator was involved from the beginning and Guskiewicz wasn’t aware, it would erode any legitimacy or credibility he has as a leader.

Did Somers tell other administrators what was happening, or were they left in the dark?

What, if anything, did the administration know, and when did they know it?

White supremacists have the ear of the BOG.

According to a signed statement from the UNC System, Jake Sullivan, the chief of staff of the SCV, sent an email to Board member Bob Rucho, requesting a meeting with him to “discuss the ‘Silent Sam’ controversy.” Jim Holmes, one of the five BOG members tasked with working with UNC-Chapel Hill on the monument issue, responded to the SCV’s request, and thus, negotiations began. 

Turns out, the BOG views white supremacists and Confederate sympathizers as legitimate stakeholders who are worthy of a seat at the table. Even worse, they’re stakeholders that the BOG is actively willing to side with and funnel money to. It's a de facto endorsement of everything abhorrent the SCV stands for — a fitting move by an institution that has openly embraced white supremacy for centuries. 

It's a slap in the face to protesters and student organizers, whose voices have long been ignored and silenced by those with decision-making power. When can student organizers just send an email to a BOG member and set up a meeting? 

Guess the BOG is willing to listen, as long as the right person is asking. 

The UNC Board of Governors deliberately misled the public. 

In December 2018, the BOG chairperson appointed five members to a task force to work alongside then-Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees to determine Silent Sam's fate. These five members were Darrell Allison, James Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Spangler Nelson and Robert Rucho. 

Roughly a year later, the news of the settlements broke, and these five members signed onto an op-ed published in the News & Observer defending the deals. The op-ed claimed they worked on the settlements, which means the BOG would have likely violated state Open Meetings Law by not conducting public meetings on the subject.

But Earl Whipple, former UNC System vice president for communications, revealed in a deposition that he was the one that penned the op-ed, with input from the five Board members. Whipple testified that he had no knowledge of the group having any formal meetings regarding Silent Sam. 

The public was led to believe that these five members of the BOG played a role in negotiating the deals. But it now appears they had no role in them at all. Instead, the settlements were negotiated by lawyers behind closed doors — the op-ed invoked the names of these members to give a "public face" to the agreements and boost their legitimacy.

Surprise! They didn't violate Open Meetings Law — because they did something worse.

The Board of Governors is a sham.

Although Whipple testified that the five individuals who signed the op-ed were “representative of the entire UNC System,” it seems the other members of the Board of Governors did not have prior knowledge of the op-ed before it was published. 

BOG member Marty Kotis told The Daily Tar Heel the five members weren’t representing the Board when they wrote the op-ed. In fact, he said he never saw the op-ed before it was published.

It’s a reminder of what we’ve always known: the BOG has a governance problem. Who is really in control of what happens at our University? Not the chancellor — he says his hands are tied by the BOG. But it can’t be the BOG, because apparently they don’t always know what’s going on either. 

We can't look away, not even for a second.

The biggest controversy at UNC over the past five years was negotiated entirely by lawyers and administrators with zero accountability to the people. 

Not one person involved in these settlements was democratically elected or public-facing. The entire process happened behind closed doors, without seeking public input from students, taxpayers or anyone else.

As The Daily Tar Heel reported last year, the UNC System’s $74,999 payment to the SCV enabled a lawsuit against itself, one it would intentionally forfeit millions on despite knowing it lacked merit — and the deal remained concealed from public knowledge for nearly a month. 

If the people hadn’t been watching, the System would have gotten away with it. It was largely due to The Daily Tar Heel’s watchdog reporting and the relentless pursuit by activists and organizers that the $2.5 million settlement was overturned at all. 

What does that say about the health of the largest public institution in our state?

What now?

Above all, the settlement leaves us with more questions than answers. But one thing is true: the system is fundamentally broken.

The governing body of the UNC System is a corrupt, undemocratic sham, wholly subservient to outside interests but never to the students it’s meant to represent. 

The Silent Sam issue has never just been about the statue, where it sits or who owns it. It’s about trust, transparency, effective governance and what — or who — this institution chooses to protect. And over the years, it’s deepened an already chasmic divide between the University, the System and the people. We’re not sure if that’s something that can ever be repaired.

Is there even room for transparency or accountability in the current institutional framework? One thing's for sure: there's no path forward until everything is out in the open. 

The way our University is governed has been shrouded in secrecy for too long. It’s time for that to end. If that doesn’t happen, it might be time to sit back and watch it burn itself to the ground. 

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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