Silent Sam: The Current State of Play

What follows is my understanding of where things currently stand in the ongoing controversy over the disposition of the Confederate monument (known as Silent Sam) on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  This is a reconstruction based on the conversations I have had with various people and on the public news reports.  I could be very wrong about all of this.  But I do not think that I am.  The one crucial institutional fact you need to know to thread your way through this labyrinth: the Board of Trustees (BOT) is the local governing Board for the Chapel Hill campus.  The Board of Governors (BOG) is the governing body for the whole University of North Carolina system.  Both boards are dominated by Republicans appointed by the aggressively partisan North Carolina state legislature which has enjoyed (since 2012) a veto-proof majority in both houses.  (That veto-proof majority will end in January 2019, when the State House will still be majority Republican, but will not be a 2/3rds majority.  Hence the Democratic governor Roy Cooper will now be able to veto bills and not see his vetoes overridden.)

In the case of Silent Sam, the BOG was the body designated to make a final recommendation as to the statue’s disposal.  But even their recommendation was only that, since the law (passed in the wake of the Dylan Roof shootings in Charleston SC that led to the removal of several Confederate monuments around the country) by our Republican legislators said that monuments on public property could not be removed, except at the behest of the state historical commission, and even in such cases could not be placed in a museum or re-located to another jurisdiction.  The law was pretty obviously aimed squarely at Silent Sam, which has been a sore point on campus for well over forty years, with the intensity of the protests against his presence waxing and waning over that period.

After the statue was toppled by protesters in late August 2018, the Chapel Hill campus was given by the BOG until November 15th to suggest a plan for its disposal.  Even that was a small victory since it headed off those on the right wing who insisted the statue must immediately be restored to its now empty pedestal.  Failing to put it right back up, the right insisted, was caving in to “mob rule.”  Campus fears that the statue would be restored led to faculty and student clamor vociferous enough to lead Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt to make a public statement (on the Friday before Labor Day weekend) that she did not believe the statue belonged in its former place, prominently displayed at the entrance to campus.  She was immediately reprimanded by the chair of the BOG for disrespecting the process that had been put in place, since she was taking one option for the November 15th recommendation unilaterally off the table.  Folt’s Labor Day statement was made, I believe, with her understanding that her public comment could get her fired. She weathered that storm. Subsequently, on University Day, the annual celebration of the university’s birthday (this year was its 225th anniversary), Chancellor Folt make a public apology for UNC’s racist past.

The November 15th date appeared to have been chosen to push the final decision past election day, in a year when the Democrats were making a concerted push to break the Republican “super majority” in the state legislature.  Except for Folt’s University Day apology, which in fact generated surprisingly little response from either left or right, the Silent Sam issue went underground.  Campus seemed preoccupied by the usual business of a semester, while the issue played no part at all in the legislative races around the state.  Since there were polls suggesting that 70% of the state’s residents believed the statue should be restored to its empty pedestal, the failure of Republican candidates to demagogue the issue baffled me.  The reason, I was told, was that Apple was about six inches away from announcing that it was opening a major new facility in North Carolina (in fact, about ten miles from the UNC campus) and that the only thing holding Apple up was the Silent Sam mess.  They wanted nothing to do with aggressive Southern white boy culture.  So, apparently, the fix was in from the state Republican Party about staying silent about Silent Sam.

The silence was broken post-election when, after a small delay (the November 15th deadline was not met) Chancellor Folt and the UNC BOT announced in early December their recommendation: to build a brand new five million dollar “history and education center” (that was, somehow, not a museum) on the Chapel Hill campus to house the statue.  The proposal, it seemed pretty clear, was meant to stay within the parameters of the state law regarding confederate monuments while also respecting the fact that every single possible spot on the current campus was impossible because the current occupants of those places had made it very clear they didn’t want the thing.

The BOT recommendation was met on campus with incredulity and outrage.  Campus again went into overdrive, with the Faculty Senate condemning the proposal and reiterating its conviction that the statue had no place on the Chapel Hill campus, while graduate students and a small group of faculty sympathizers announced—and worked to muster support for—a grade strike.  They would not submit grades for the fall semester work, just about to be completed.  (They could not stop teaching, since classes for the semester had ended by this point.)

There is some plausibility to the claim that the BOT proposal was really just a way of kicking the can down the road since its implementation would take years—and in that time the state’s politics might have changed enough to make repeal of the monument law a possibility.  But the Chancellor and the BOT could hardly state that hope in public as a way of justifying their plan.  Rather, in taking the plan to the campus and the world, the Chancellor said she preferred an off-campus disposition of the stature, but that she was constrained by the law and, thus, was offering the only feasible and palatable option that the law made available.  The campus was not impressed, since the campus community did not care a fig about the law and saw no compelling reason to abide by it.

I think it is pretty obvious that the proposal from the BOT represented the best plan the Chancellor could get that body to agree to.  Remember that it is stacked with Republicans.  As for the Chancellor herself, I think it fair to say that she has behaved exactly as Barack Obama did on the issue of gay marriage.  Her position has been “evolving” over the past two years—and that evolution has been driven by the persistent pressure from campus activists to her left.  She has always been a tight-rope walker, trying to placate all sides in a state where campus sentiment, public sentiment, and the beliefs/actions of the state legislature do not align but are deeply at odds with one another.  She has always been in a terrible position.  I don’t think she has played her hand particularly well, but she has definitely had a very bad and fairly weak hand to play.  There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the line she has tried to walk has been pulled steadily leftward over the past two years (hence her statement that the statue should not be restored to its pedestal and her public apology) because of the campus activists.

So—and here we really get to what is speculation on my part, but speculation that I am 80% certain is correct—we come to the events of the past five days.  Speculation number one: leading up to the BOG’s scheduled meeting for December 14th, during which it would respond to the BOT proposal, Chancellor Folt and the UNC administration lobbied the BOG to table the BOT proposal.  In other words, the campus response to the BOT proposal had led to yet another “evolution.”  Now the Chancellor wanted the BOG to reject her own proposal.

In the meantime, the campus administration was desperate, in particular, to head off a grade strike, convinced that such a strike would only strengthen the hand of the right wing in the state by generating public outrage over campus teachers not doing their jobs.  That desperation led to campus officials threatening those who withheld grades with expulsion and with financial penalties.  I think the administration over-reacted, both because actual participation in such a strike was always going to be much, much less prevalent than they imagined, and because the threats only cemented the determination of the most dedicated to not back down.  In any negotiation, you need to give the other side a face-saving way to back down.  But the administration didn’t negotiate; it simply made its threats.  (Let me add here, that the administration’s failure, over the past two years, to engage in any serious negotiations with black faculty is, to my mind, is its greatest—and most egregious—failure during this whole saga.)

The BOG not only tabled the BOT proposal at is December 14th meeting—but rejected it altogether.  The can got kicked down the road again.  The time honored formula was followed: appoint a committee to look into the issue and come up with a recommendation.  This new recommendation is to be ready by March 15, 2019.  This non-resolution was announced after a three hour closed session of the BOG.

So here comes speculation number two, since obviously I cannot know what went on behind closed doors.  My claim: the most conservative members of the BOG lost.  The three hours gave those conservatives time to vent.  But if the far righters had the votes to force the return of the statue to the pedestal, they would have held that vote and won.  The formation of a committee means that the return of Silent Sam to the now empty pedestal is never going to happen.  The far right’s moment to force reinstallation has now come and gone.  They were outvoted.  Folt and the UNC administration had successfully lobbied the BOG to not recommend the restoration of the statue to its former place.

That also means that the campus protesters have won a partial victory—only partial but none the less extremely significant.  One problem, of course, is that their victory cannot be publicly acknowledged by the administration or by the BOG because they do not wish to rile up the state legislature.  But the failure to acknowledge the victory also means that many on the left do not believe—or understand—that restoration of the statue will never occur.  Some on the left are fighting the wrong battle at this point, fighting against restoration, not against its relocation on campus.  And the left is also missing its chance to declare victory—when victories, especially when partial, are a means to attracting more people to a cause.  “See what we have accomplished so far.  But there is still more to be done.  Join us.”

That the BOG failed to recommend restoration signals a split among its members.  Without a doubt, some hardliners on the Board favored restoration.  That certain Board members have taken to the press to express their hardliner positions is a sign of weakness, not strength.  They knew they did not have a majority on the board, so were going public in an effort to stir up enough public outrage to move their fellow board members in their direction.  For that reason, the left wing should ignore the public comments of these BOG outliers.  For better and for worse, in the non-democracy that is North Carolina (hat tip to my colleague Andy Reynolds) what happens in public is mere froth.  The real action is in the back rooms.

So what is happening in the back rooms?  That depends on how severe the schism is between “moderate” business Republicans and the social conservatives.  How pissed off are the business folks at the loss of Apple and at the general loss of reputation for the whole state, which now exists in the same nether world as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi after decades of priding itself on being more sensible than that.  Because the action moves now to the state legislature. (In that busy last week leading up to the December 14th meeting of the BOG, Apple announced it is expanding in Austin, Cupertino, and San Diego.  North Carolina’s failure to resolve the Silent Sam mess meant it lost Apple.  You will object: but Texas is hardly a beacon of progressivism.  Yes, but they removed confederate monuments on the University of Texas campus and there was barely a stir.)

The March 15th deadline is to provide time to lobby the legislators to accept an off-campus disposition of the statue, to put the Silent Sam mess behind us once and for all.  I have no idea as to what the outcome will be because I have no idea about the balance of power between the business Republicans and the social conservatives.  Part of me wants to say that money always wins—and, thus, if the business Republicans really want to solve this problem once and for all, they will get their way.  But I don’t know just how pressing they think solving the problem is.  And the pessimist in me says that we have tons of evidence that, in fact, it is culture that always wins.  Racism and lots of other deep-seated cultural values/beliefs are demonstrably economically harmful—but seem ineradicable just the same. (Of course, I really, really wish that the “right” thing–morally–would be what wins, but somehow it seems to lose out to money or culture just about every time.)

This is non-democracy 2018 style.  The decision will be made in the backrooms—and the politicians involved will be swayed by their ambitions within the Republican party pecking order and by their need to have money to run their campaigns.  Public opinion on the issue might play a 10% role in which way they finally choose to jump.  Their own personal convictions about what is the right thing to do will play a 15% role for some of them, and no role at all for others of them.  What they will do is what they deem it is safe to do.  They are about avoiding pain, avoiding losing office, and not about doing anything positive.  It is all about avoiding the negative.

Despite our well-grounded fears about the decline of faculty governance, the university is much more democratic than the general polity.  All the campus protests have accomplished a lot.  We have pushed the evolution of the Chancellor and have insured that the statue is not restored.  I don’t know how campus activism can influence this next stage.  The administration clearly fears that aggressive tactics like a strike will back-fire, handing the right wing a hammer to use against us.  That is certainly a plausible fear.  Escalating a fight in a way that leaves no face-saving exit, in a way that backs your opponent into a corner, often leads to non-optimal results.  But backing down in a fight can also be taken as a sign of weakness—a weakness that your opponent will then move to exploit.  There simply is no infallible rule here about which tactics will work best.  The elites—the legislators and the Republican power brokers—who now have to decide the statue’s fate are, for the most part, beyond the reach of us on campus.  We can only reach them indirectly, by keeping up the pressure on the Chancellor.

But even there, I think it fair to say that the Chancellor deserves a grade of B+ for fall semester 2018 (her grade for prior semesters would be much lower in my opinion.)  She has swung the BOG over to her side, a substantial feat.  They have now come to accept that the statue cannot be restored to its former place.  At this point, it pretty much is out of Folt’s hands.  She has to leave it to the BOG to do the lobbying of the legislature—and hope that they can pull off the impressive feat of getting the law relaxed in such a way as to allow for a off-campus installation of the damn thing.  Stay tuned.

One thought on “Silent Sam: The Current State of Play

  1. John, as always I find your analysis on point. I do wonder if you’ll allow for a question and more speculation: to what degree were the BOG and business Republicans swayed by the athletes, especially black athletes who are former UNC basketball players and (for some) current NBA players? Certainly one NY Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/sports/silent-sam.html?fbclid=IwAR07YQ5HpfBMVgCzC1x82pkqopF92tUaWBIprj-9rRZJ2xDJzeR8St3q-BY) makes it sound as if they single handedly swayed the BOG, which I know is a false narrative. But I think what happened at Mizzou is proof positive that athletes and activism can move mountains.

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