CHAPEL HILL — The UNC Board of Governors will not take up the question of what to do with the Silent Sam Confederate monument, the board’s new chairman said.
In a statement sent out Friday night, hours after presiding over his first UNC system board meeting, chairman Harry Smith said the 2015 state law on historic monuments will prevent the board from doing anything on its own, despite pressure from students, faculty, alumni and others.
“The UNC Board of Governors respects each of the varying opinions within the University community concerning this matter,” according to Smith’s statement released by UNC. “However, after consulting with legal counsel, neither UNC-Chapel Hill nor the UNC System have the legal authority to unilaterally relocate the Silent Sam statue. Thus, the board has no plans to take any action regarding the monument at this time, and we will await any guidance that the North Carolina Historical Commission may offer.”
His comment was something of a turnaround, after he said Friday that he expected to have conversations about the statue. He stated no personal opinion but said he didn’t want to ignore the issue.
“I would expect that we will have a conversation at the board with the president and follow the process,” he said following the board meeting. “At the end of the day, what I want to make sure of is that we’re not ignoring it, so that we’re just not having public comment sessions and then we’re moving on. We all have our views and opinions. I do believe that if we follow a healthy process, then we’ll always get to the right decision.”
His subsequent statement came a few hours later.
On Friday, speakers turned up at the public comment session to say it was time for the board to take action to remove or relocate the statue, which has prompted campus protests for decades, and especially in the past year.
A majority of the board wrote to UNC System President Margaret Spellings and former chairman Lou Bissette last year after they penned a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper expressing concern around a large planned protest last August. Fifteen board members, including Smith, chastised Spellings and Bissette for a lack of communication with the board before sending a letter to Cooper about Silent Sam.
Cooper has petitioned the North Carolina Historical Commission to consider moving Confederate monuments from State Capitol grounds to the Bentonville battlefields in Johnston County.
Silent Sam was not part of his request, but citizens have separately sent a request to the commission. So far the commission has not taken up the issue of Silent Sam.
A 2015 state law prevents the relocation of historic monuments. There are a few exceptions, including situations in which the structures are creating a safety hazard or are in danger of being damaged. Several opponents of the statue have argued that the repeated vandalism of the monument is grounds for removing it to another location to protect it.
The UNC-Chapel Hill campus spent $390,000 last year in security costs around Silent Sam.