State News

Interim UNC system president doesn't want 'Silent Sam' to return to Chapel Hill campus

Posted January 25, 2019 2:45 p.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2019 6:23 p.m. EST

— Preventing teachers and researchers from being distracted by problems swirling around North Carolina's public universities, including an ideological divide over the future of a Confederate memorial on the flagship campus, is a top priority for the 17-campus system's interim president, he said Friday.

Dr. Bill Roper addressed the University of North Carolina Board of Governors for the first time since the group pushed out his predecessor, former President Margaret Spellings, and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.

"There are a lot of people in North Carolina who care about higher education. We're strong because of that. But we must have some calm and stability – regular order and process – so that we can all keep our eye on our students, our classrooms, our labs, our hospitals, our communities," said Roper, who previously headed the UNC Health Care system and the medical school at Chapel Hill and who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Roper said that, while he decried the Confederate statue nicknamed "Silent Sam" being ripped down by protesters from its prominent spot on the Chapel Hill campus in August, it shouldn't be restored.

"My personal position is we should not be putting the monument back on McCorkle Place," he said.

Folt was pushed out of her job early after she last week ordered the removal of the granite base left behind after the statue was toppled last summer. She said she acted to protect public safety because the pedestal remained a focal point of passionate protests, both pro and con.

Board members heard from both sides of the debate Friday morning.

"The statue is a lightning rod for violent white supremacists," Margaret Maurer told them. "If you bring this statue back to our campus, this legacy will be your shame. This violence will be your shame."

"I acknowledge my utter displeasure, disgust and disbelief as to what I witnessed Jan. 15," Lamar Pender said, referring to when the pedestal was removed in an overnight operation. "This memorial has nothing whatsoever to do with racism, slavery, Jim Crow or white supremacy, as suggested by some ignorant individuals."

Surprised by Folt's unilateral move, the Board of Governors gave her until next week to leave. On Friday, the board gave Roper authority to negotiate her exit package.

Finding a temporary substitute for Folt has been Roper's top focus since taking over as UNC president from Spellings 10 days ago, he said. Spellings, former President George W. Bush's education secretary, resigned in October after repeatedly clashing with the board.

"No one is more aware of that timeline than I am," Roper said of Folt's impending departure. "I take seriously the issues that we face, but UNC-Chapel Hill is 225 years old, and it is a very strong institution, and we are going to weather this just well."

Many names have been suggested as interim chancellor, he said, and he wants to replace Folt with someone who knew they would hold the job for perhaps 18 months while a national search for a permanent replacement is conducted.

"It will need to be a person who knows the situation here and is known by the people here" in North Carolina, Roper said. "This interim chancellor must be a person of stature. Carolina needs a leader who has the gravitas to lead. We need an interim chancellor who will be able to chart the right course ahead and push back where needed."

The interim chancellor will have a some say on Silent Sam's future, he said. But the Board of Governors will have the final say, and a board committee is working with UNC-Chapel Hill trustees on a plan for the monument. Their recommendations will be presented to the board in March.

Roper, 70, ducked a question about whether he would seek to stay on as president of the public university system. "We'll just see how it all works out," he said.