If the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees were looking for a way to make absolutely no one happy, they found it with their proposed “solution” to the relocation of Silent Sam.
Silent Sam is a statue honoring the UNC students who fought in the Civil War. It was erected in 1913 by the Daughters of the Confederacy. In August of this year, a mob of mostly non-student protestors pulled down the statue in an act of blatant disregard for the law. The September Civitas Poll found that 70 percent of respondents opposed the crowd toppling the monument, while only 22 percent supported it.
State law requires that confederate monuments not be moved without state approval. Thus, the UNC Board of Trustees was tasked with proposing a plan for replacing the statue.
This week, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt announced the Board’s recommendation. They suggest building a new “museum” in a more discrete part of campus to house the statue amidst other artifacts and educational pieces (view the full report here). The estimated cost of the proposed high-security building is $5.3 million plus an additional $800,000 per year for operation. The campus is planning to ask the legislature for the money. This means that they expect state taxpayers to foot the bill for this excessive endeavor.
UNC students and faculty have expressed that the previous placement of Silent Sam at the front of the school denoted a place of honor unbefitting the statue considering some of the sentiment expressed at its dedication. Why can the statue not just be relocated to less conspicuous place on campus? Folt reported that public safety was the top criterion in the board’s decision to not place the statue in an outside location.
Putting aside our feelings about confederate statues, let’s think critically about the implications of the chancellor’s statement. Is the statue itself a threat to public safety? It has been in place for over a century; has Sam himself ever harmed anyone? Of course not. The public safety threat that the chancellor is alluding to is the MOB that tore down the statue this summer. Such thinking conveys an assumption that lawlessness is the default; that students or community members simply are not able to control themselves, that they are not responsible for their deliberate choices which endanger public safety. If the statue can be blamed for the mob’s violence, the perpetrators will never be held accountable for their own actions.
Will the chancellor not hold her campus to a higher standard?
Will all of our future decisions be decided with the threat of a mob as the top consideration, regardless of cost to taxpayers statewide now and into the future? That is no way to govern.
Interestingly, campus police were present for the riot that resulting in the statue’s toppling. Their lack of preventative action is revealing. Were they instructed to turn a blind eye? If not, why did the administration fail to condemn the campus police for allowing the vandalism under their watch? There are many unanswered questions, but they all seem to point to a pattern from the UNC administration of disregarding the law when it is convenient for them.
UNC students have the right to protest and to petition their Board to let them move the statue to another on-campus location or the legislature for approval to move the statue off-campus. But the students, faculty, or surrounding community of Chapel Hill do not have the right to impose a burden on all North Carolina taxpayers which results from their refusal to follow the law.
North Carolinian’s are divided on their overall opinion of Confederate statues. Thirty-nine percent say that they’d support legal removal of the monuments, while 50 percent oppose. There are valid points on either side. The statue should not be a force of racial intimidation on campus; nor should its removal be a condemnation of the entirety of our state’s history. It is a delicate balance, but one that, if reached, could help to heal some of the wounds that this situation has reopened.
At the least, it seems fitting to add some context. The campus could make a statement about its commitment to human dignity, deeply rooted because of the state’s history. That seems an appropriate counterbalance to the statue’s previous intent. But a relocation of the statue to another outdoor location and a new plaque would likely cost much less than $5 million. And if the students and faculty want that, they should be willing to finance it. The school was certainly able to find nearly four times the proposed building amount outside of the state coffers to finance their academic-athletic scandals.
The UNC recommendation will now go to the Board of Governors, the governing body for the larger University of North Carolina Campus System, for final approval.