Editorial: Confronting Our Racist Leadership

 A banner held at Monday’s protest organized in response to the Board of Trustees’ recommendation for relocating the Silent Sam monument (Image:  Alexis Hinnant )

A banner held at Monday’s protest organized in response to the Board of Trustees’ recommendation for relocating the Silent Sam monument (Image: Alexis Hinnant)

 

A multitude of the students, faculty, and staff of this university are righteously furious with the solution put forward by the Board of Trustees earlier this week concerning the future of UNC’s disgraceful Confederate monument, Silent Sam. The proposal strikes many as a slap in the face and a huge step backwards: the statue will be held in its own building and moved to South Campus’s Odum Village, which is home to a high concentration of black students. In essence, the leaders of our university have elected to build a shrine to the defense of slavery. They have elected to preserve an interpretation of history which says that black people are subhuman and that fighting to defend that such a notion was a noble cause. They have elected to deny black students and faculty the courtesy of living at UNC within the confines of basic human dignity, after the faculty made clear such a decision would create a racially hostile campus. In a shocking display of callousness and indecision, the powers in charge of keeping our campus safe acted in the only way that could possibly be worse for our community than putting the monument back in its original location. A low bar to limbo, but under it they slid.

The Board of Trustees, on which Chancellor Folt sits as an ex officio (non-voting) member, is supposed to be perceptive to the interests of this community. The preferences and expectations of the majority of students were clearly communicated to them in the form of a report from the Student Advisory Committee to the Chancellor released last month.

So why didn’t they follow them?

The Board of Trustees, which serves UNC-Chapel Hill alone, is accountable to the Board of Governors, who serve the whole UNC school system. The Board of Trustees is a twelve-member panel, eight of whom are elected by the Board of Governors and four of whom are appointed by the Governor. The Board of Governors is appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) — a body elected in a state that seems to further endanger its own democracy year after year. You can see now where conflicts of interest may abound. The Board of Governors is elected by a legislature which does not represent the values of UNC — or much of the state for that matter — and the Board of Trustees is entirely dependent on the Board of Governors. The “university of the people” is shockingly out of touch with the voices of the people.

Any plan proposed by the the Board of Trustees must be approved by the Board of Governors, which then must be approved by the NCGA. The current General Assembly is essentially the same body which passed a 2015 law prohibiting the removal or relocation of monuments for any reason. Even with a proposal as ludicrous as the one presented by the Board of Trustees, there is still a chance the Board of Governors could reject it for being too lenient and not supporting the return of the statue to its former pedestal. This was the exact reasoning offered by Allie Ray McCullen — one of the two Trustees who voted down the plan in the first place.

Resentment directed at Carol Folt is not unreasonable, but we must not neglect that this decision is symptomatic of a broader problem plaguing UNC: the Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, and ultimately the NCGA itself continuing to impose their wildly conservative ideals on the UNC campus and system. These bodies are self-reproducing beasts which will continue to be uncaring and unrepresentative as they dismantle the principles of democracy and accountability in North Carolina. Were Chancellor Folt and the Board of Trustees to propose a plan contradicting the desires of the Board of Governors, they could (and likely would) fire her, potentially replacing her with someone much worse. And they could do it all with impunity.

Still, Chancellor Folt’s failure to take a firm public stance in support of students — especially those most affected by the decision and most likely to feel unsafe as a result — cannot be tolerated. It is our leaders’ responsibility to defend the interests of the Carolina community at the administrative level. If ever there was a group designed to resist the Board of Governors and General Assembly when they overstep their power, it is our Chancellor and our Board of Trustees. Though a safer and more sensible plan could have stood to be rejected (which, it appears, still might), the representatives of our university are nonetheless charged with protecting the interests of the people. They made an active, conscious decision to hear the people and ignore them.

Our system is broken. As students, it shouldn’t be our responsibility to fix it, but it has become infinitely clear that it is. We, as leaders and as the largest population in this conversation, must stand up and require accountability for not only the Chancellor, but the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees as well. Most importantly, though, we must address our elected officials; they cannot be allowed to hide behind an artificially complex governance structure while imposing an ethic at odds with what our students believe. When they show themselves to be spineless, it falls upon us to speak up and speak out against them. For some, that may look like supporting the TA strike as finals season approaches. For others, it could involve beginning or continuing to boycott UNC Student Stores and other purchases providing supplemental revenue for the administration. For those who can do so safely, it might even mean marching, protesting, and advocating for their peers who can’t. What is clear, though, is that passivity in this moment is parallel to endorsing the erasure of human dignity. Our university is running out of time to correct the image it will leave behind in history.