When pushing back feels like pushed out

Published 11:42 am Monday, January 21, 2019


That’s how many of the University of North Carolina system’s top administrators have resigned in the face of criticism from the Board of Governors.

And hovering about it all: a century-old bronze statue.

Carol Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, announced her resignation earlier this week. She joins UNC Systems President Margaret Spellings, who made a similar decision last October.

Ironic, it seems that Folt’s announcement came after months of silence on the issue of – pardon the pun – ‘Silent Sam’. On Tuesday, Folt ordered the removal of the Confederate memorial’s marooned pedestal and plaque, left behind when protesters pulled Sam from his perch back in August 2018.

‘Sam’ wasn’t the only ripple in the tenure of Folt. She inherited a series of humiliating academic scandals; a purgatory from which the university only escaped within the past year.

In the political arena, those on the left felt she was a buffer to a conservative Board of Governors, while those on the right felt she was a Yankee scholar from up north, a liberal piloting the ship of a liberal arts university.

In case you weren’t aware, politics in education administration is part of the job, but that’s never been more glaring than in the harsh light of such a partisan conservative UNC Board of Governors. Add to that, most of these newer BOG appointees were placed there by the strongly conservative-leaning state legislature.

The Board of Governors on Tuesday mandated Jan. 31 as the date of Folt’s resignation as chancellor, not following the school’s graduation in May as she had wanted.

Folt’s desire was to serve out her term through the full academic year, but BOG chair Harry Smith turned that into merely a two-week’s notice.

You see, Smith is a highly successful businessman, though I’m not quite sure the Board of Governors should be run like a corporation. One thing he seems to have become known for during his tenure is being one who ‘pushes back’ with his tough talk when he makes tough decisions. That type of bravado makes it easy to strike a comparison with how this Board’s been run and the way a certain occupant of the White House runs the American government.

Sam’s pedestal left Chapel Hill the way the former lodger on that perch left McCorkle Place last summer: in the dark of night, amidst a rainstorm; almost ‘sneaking off’ into some abysmal oblivion.

Funny how the statue’s supporters balance a solitary pillar honoring Civil War dead with the monument’s racist origins at a time when turn-of-the century white supremacists celebrated the exile of African-Americans from the state’s political process.

I hope that means, at least symbolically, that whoever follows Folt into the Chancellor’s chair will do so without having people dredge up a resting place for a hunk of molten copper and tin.

For those in the greater university family, the decision on Sam by Folt was easy, lock it away somewhere. For others, maybe on the Board of Governors, even in the state legislature, and across the state in general, that denouement wasn’t quite so easy or convenient.

I salute Folt’s resolve in taking this action, even on her way out the door. Now I just hope her successor can get on with leading the university on toward its greater purpose, and not having to worry some statue’s final resting place.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.