On the other side of the Triangle, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chancellor Carol Folt announced her resignation from the institution Monday. Her exit comes at the heels of a tumultuous Fall semester marred by controversy over the place of the Silent Sam confederate statue on campus. Student groups at UNC specifically criticized the statue for symbolizing and memorializing white supremacy and anti-black violence to a diverse student body. Controversy over the statue’s place on campus subsequently led to student protests that climaxed in December of last year with the arrest of two students including Maya Little, a current Ph.D. student in the history department at UNC. Alongside her resignation notice, Folt also announced the removal of Silent Sam’s pedestal, marking the most decisive administrative action yet on the controversial confederate monument.
Folt’s exit does not tie up any loose ends, however. While it may be tempting to praise Folt for resigning in response to internal pressures, some students have critiqued her period of inaction as having been implicitly violent. Furthermore, Folt’s decision to finally eliminate Silent Sam from campus demonstrates how the removal was always a possibility given its straightforward completion, and how she may have placed her own self-interests ahead of making a morally informed decision. This is evident through the comparison of her statement the day after Silent Sam was taken down versus the day after she ordered its removal. In the former case, she abrasively called the behavior of students “unlawful and dangerous” while in the latter case, her language shifted to one of concern, in “[promoting] public safety.”
Perhaps fault should not be mindlessly assigned to Folt; given her position as a chancellor and a public figure, she most likely had to balance both the demands of UNC’s liberal-leaning student body and the more reactionary, conservative Board of Governors. This, perhaps, bears similarities to the many controversies of Duke’s own Larry Moneta—who has acted as an often-times faulty liaison between the undergraduate student body and the administration, leading to various mishaps such as the xenophobic Facebook posts chronicling his trip to China. Folt’s resignation also can be perhaps reflective of Duke’s President Knight who resigned due to internal and external pressures in light of destabilizing campus controversies in the late 60s such as the 1969 Allen Building Takeover.
Another consideration to keep in mind is Folt’s position as the first female chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill. Even today, female leaders tend to possess less political connections and leverage within male-dominated fields of leadership. If Folt were male-identifying, then it is possible to ponder what might have been different given the well-documented glass cliff women face when the reach precarious positions of authority.
Certainly one resignation will not end this long power struggle on campus. Criticisms of Silent Sam are documented as early as 1965 in a letter to the editors of The Daily Tar Heel titled “Silent Sam Should Leave” and again in 1968 through direct action in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Therefore, it would be historically responsible and imperative to recognize this as a fight much larger than Chancellor Folt alone. Looking ahead, there are unanswered questions that will determine what happens to Silent Sam in the end. Who will replace Folt? What will the selection process be like for the new chancellor? Who gets to participate? Whose voices are heard? These answers are hard to come by, as the entire process will likely be deliberately opaque as it has been in the past to maintain power along historic fault lines. At Western Carolina University, for example, the process is documented as having a 21-member committee select three candidates for chancellorship, then send it to the WCU Board of Trustees, and then forward the list to the UNC System President—a position also in flux with the resignation of Margaret Spellings, effective Mar. 1—who selects someone, before the Board of Governors has final approval on the chancellor. This indicates not only the arduous nature of the selection process, but also suggests the immense amount of power that the Board of Governors holds as the final voice.
For UNC as a whole, the future is cast into uncertainty once again as the institution continues to wrestle with ongoing racial tensions. When they come, victories small and large are important to celebrate and to honor the work of student and community member activists. These members are clearly working with a bigger picture in mind, and perhaps Duke students and community members can take this opportunity to build bridges between Chapel Hill and Durham. As members of the Triangle Area and the greater North Carolina community, there is responsibility that weighs on all of us to learn, listen, and stand up for what’s right.
This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.
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