And by Tuesday afternoon, the statewide panel that oversees public universities in North Carolina announced that Chancellor Carol Folt would be gone, too, accepting her resignation effective Jan. 31.
The University of North Carolina System Board of Governors announced that William L. Roper, the incoming interim president of the statewide system, could appoint an interim chancellor “at such time as he deems appropriate.” Roper’s first day in office is Wednesday.
“A lot has happened in the last 24 hours,” Folt said in a call with reporters Tuesday morning.
The divisive monument was gone -- and the rift between the liberal, academic campus and the more conservative, politically-appointed board that controls it had widened further.
Silent Sam, as the monument is known, stood prominently on the state flagship campus for more than a century. It had drawn demonstrations for decades — by people commemorating Confederate soldiers and by people condemning white supremacy. It had become an increasingly emotional and volatile target in recent years, spray-painted, splashed with blood, guarded by police. In August, the bronze statue was ripped off its stone pedestal by protesters, and in the months since, its future has been hotly debated.
And then, overnight, Silent Sam was gone.
Workers hauled away the heavy pedestal in the pre-dawn darkness, watched at times by students celebrating in disbelief — and questioning how long it would last.
“It is telling that Chancellor Folt suddenly found the courage to act once she was no longer beholden to the politics of self-preservation,” Jerry Wilson, a graduate student who has protested the statue, wrote in an email Monday night. “What does it say about the culture of the university that neglecting the well-being of Black students is a requirement for job security?”
Given his experiences at UNC, Wilson said, he fully expects those in power will try to erect the statue again.
On Monday night, the chairman of the panel that oversees the state’s public universities, the board of governors, expressed surprise and displeasure about the unfolding events. The board did not know about the chancellor’s decision until after the public announcement, Chairman Harry Smith said in a statement.
“We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action,” he said. “It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the board’s goal to operate with class and dignity."
On Tuesday, the board of governors met in an emergency closed session and announced it had voted to accept Folt’s resignation effective Jan. 31.
Smith told reporters after the meeting it was stunning that such “draconian action” had been taken without consulting the board of governors, referring to Folt’s moves. “When you start scheduling cranes at night . . .” he said of the swift removal of the pedestal. He said the decision to expedite Folt’s resignation was not punitive, but based on the best interests of the school.
“It’s certainly not what’s best for campus,” to lose the chancellor so suddenly, said William Sturkey, an assistant professor of history, who called the decision petty and punitive. It’s a tremendous relief to have the monument gone, he said, and not have something luring neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates to campus. “It feels like we have a remarkable opportunity to move forward and move beyond this thing.”
Sturkey questioned whether UNC will be able to attract a good leader for the university given the politics and tensions playing out so publicly.
Margaret Spellings announced in October that she would be stepping down from the presidency of the University of North Carolina system in March, midway through her five-year term. Tuesday was her last day in the office, a spokesman for the system said.
“To lose both the president and the chancellor within a matter of weeks really creates a serious leadership void,” said Harry Watson, a professor of Southern culture at UNC. “An orderly transition would be far better and would indicate that whoever comes next would not be entering a war zone. As it is, I’m not sure that’s true.”
The board of governor’s decision indicates they’re not “open to a solution to the monument question that is widely acceptable on this campus,” Watson said. "Given the state of emotions and convictions around here, that can’t be a good thing.”
It indicates Silent Sam will be an issue in the choice of the next chancellor, Watson said, and “if the board of governors decides to pick somebody who will push their solution down the campus’s throat, we could have a lot of trouble around here -- which none of us need or want.”
Last month, Folt and the university’s trustees presented a plan to house the Silent Sam statue in a new building at a less visible location, saying they would prefer not to have the monument on campus but were prohibited by state law from removing it.
The plan was immediately excoriated by students and others as an expensive shrine to white supremacy.
And it was rejected by the board of governors because of concerns about public safety and the estimated cost: $5.3 million to erect the building and an $800,000 budget to maintain it.
The board of governors directed Folt and several members of the panel to devise a new plan by March 15.
On Monday, Folt took a stand.
Haywood Cochrane Jr., chairman of UNC’s board of trustees, said Folt did not ask trustees before authorizing the removal of the pedestal, and they were surprised by the timing.
“She inherited something that had no good answer,” he said of Silent Sam. Cochrane said Folt had done a good job balancing opposing political agendas. But he said the decision to remove the remnants would upset the conservative base in the area.
Cochrane declined to comment on the board of governors’ decision to accelerate Folt’s resignation.
Folt has been a great chancellor, he said, guiding UNC past an athletics scandal, overseeing increased research funding and exceeding goals for an ambitious fundraising campaign.
“She’s honorable, she’s hardworking, she’s the smartest person in the room. … Some times things don’t fit,” Cochrane said, comparing it to a marriage that ends in divorce. “I think that’s where we are.”
Earlier Tuesday, Folt had said she hoped to finish the academic year at UNC, saying she and her team had a lot of momentum — and a lot still to accomplish.
“I really have not wanted my job status to be part of my decision-making about the monument,” she said Tuesday morning. “It has not been."