CHAPEL HILL — The UNC system’s Board of Governors rejected a proposal Friday to build a $5.3 million history and education center at UNC-Chapel Hill to house a toppled Confederate statue.
The board opted to “go back to the drawing board” to figure out what to do with the monument that has stood at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1913. The board appointed five of its members to a new committee that will work with UNC-CH officials to come up with a new plan by March 15.
Board Chairman Harry Smith of Greenville said cost was a primary concern in turning down the proposal to move the statue known as “Silent Sam” into a new building on the edge of the UNC-CH campus.
Smith didn’t indicate where the statue could end up but said he believes any move off campus would require changes to a strict state law on historical monuments.
“The $5.3 million dollars is, I think, pretty tough for a lot of us to swallow,” he told reporters. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board, in a teamlike approach, and try to get it right.”
UNC system President Margaret Spellings said she and Smith met for two hours Thursday with UNC-CH students and employees to hear their concerns about Silent Sam. She called the conversation “deeply productive and thoughtful,” according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.
On Friday, UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt said she is “grateful” for more time to develop a plan and hopes the added political muscle of the Board of Governors will allow off-campus options to be considered. She acknowledged that the rejected plan, which she helped develop, “didn’t satisfy anyone,” underscoring the difficult issues surrounding the statue. It’s been stored in an undisclosed location since it was torn down in August.
“The decisions that will be made about this statue will having lasting ramifications for the university and the state,” Folt said, as reported by the News & Observer. “The people of our university work every day to serve for the betterment of this state, and we owe it to them to get it right. Clearly it won’t be easy, but we will be continuing to work as hard as we can so that our community and our state can thrive.”
After the meeting the university on Twitter thanked the Board of Governors “for this additional opportunity to find the best possible solution.”
The vote, according to the UNC-CH statement, “gives Carolina more time to review relocation options for the Confederate Monument and offer a revised recommendation. An off-campus solution remains our strong preference and we will work until March 15 to more fully explore this option.
“We heard the passion and conviction of our students, faculty, staff and alumni. Our preference for an off-campus solution is especially important because that is the way to focus all of us on Carolina’s core mission of education, discovery and service for the public good.”
UNC-CH trustees on Dec. 3 approved a plan to build a history center to house the statue about a mile from the main quad where the statue previously stood.
Trustees said they had to balance safety concerns with a strict 2015 state historical law on Confederate monuments.
Folt and several of the trustees said they would prefer moving the statue off campus entirely, but were restricted by the monuments law that allows relocation only in narrow circumstances.
The plan drew sharp criticism both for its cost and because it would return Silent Sam to the grounds of the university. The proposal sparked a demonstration by hundreds the night after it was announced.
Since then, numerous faculty members, students and current or former athletes such as NBA player Harrison Barnes have signed open letters or otherwise voiced opposition to returning the statue to campus.
About 80 teaching assistants have also threatened to withhold final grades on 2,000 student assignments at the end of the semester.
The threat was serious enough that the chair of the UNC-CH faculty, Leslie Parise, wrote an open letter Friday saying that while the aim of protesting the return of the statue was admirable, “withholding grades will do much more harm than good in helping us reach this goal.”
Several dozen protesters gathered outside of Friday’s meeting of the Board of Governors amid a heavy police presence. Some protesters held signs with messages including “No Racist Statues.”
“Silent Sam” had stood on a main campus quad for more than a century until it was torn down in August by protesters who decried its origins, including a racist speech by a former Confederate when it was dedicated.
UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, whose team includes several signers of a letter that opposes returning the statue to campus, said he supported their ability to speak about causes they care about.
“I talked to our guys about it, told them if they feel strongly about it, go right ahead,” he told reporters before the statewide board’s vote.
Williams, himself a UNC graduate, added: “my own personal opinion is I wish we didn’t have a situation where we’re putting it back on campus. I don’t know what everybody’s motivation was in the early 19-teens, 1913? But right now it’s a very divisive issue. I wish it would go away.”
Also Friday, the university system’s governing board voted to review conduct policies and consider new sanctions — “including suspension, termination and expulsion” —of students and employees who engage in conduct that affects public safety.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we’ve got a safe campus,” Marty Kotis, a board member from Greensboro, told the News & Observer. “It’s hard to do that when you’ve got people throwing frozen water bottles or cans of food at police officers or at other visitors to campus, or hitting innocent individuals.
“And we’ve got to rein back in that violence. We cannot have a campus where we’ve got a big cage match out there.”
The News & Observer reported that about 100 students, UNC faculty members and others opposed to the statue set up in front of the UNC Center for School Leadership Development before Friday morning’s board meeting.
Police arrived before protesters and set up barricades that prevented people from standing on the sidewalk outside the building.
Police later arrested one person as they moved people away from the front of the building.