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When Carol Folt became chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, she may have felt like someone who had just moved into a house that was on fire.
The school was still embroiled in an ugly and embarrassing academic athletics scandal that all but shattered the image of “the Carolina Way.”
No sooner had those flames begun to flicker than the “Silent Sam” controversy flared, and keeps simmering to this day.
So, now that she is leaving after almost six years in Chapel Hill, Folt will have finished a tenure that was never completely free of a high-profile controversy. From beginning to end.
When Folt, 68, announced her surprise resignation last week, it came with an asterisk: By the way, she also had ordered workers to remove what was left of Silent Sam, the Confederate statue that had stood for a century in the university’s front yard until protesters ripped it from its perch in August.
The memorial’s pedestal was uprooted before dawn on Tuesday and placed in storage. “The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment,” Folt wrote in a statement.
Free at last, it seemed, to follow her gut, Folt removed what was left of Sam without first consulting her bosses, the UNC Board of Governors. The board was not pleased. Rather than allowing Folt to step down following spring graduation, it gave her two weeks.
The board’s chairman, Harry Smith, bristled at Folt’s removal of the statue’s base. “It’s a bit stunning, based on how this has gone,” Smith told The News & Observer of Raleigh, “that UNC-Chapel Hill felt they needed to take this draconian action. ... When you start scheduling cranes at night, and key and critical stakeholders aren’t involved, it’s just unfortunate.”
That the board felt blindsided by Folt is understandable. But it had a hand in this mess.
Despite her own foibles, both the legislature and the Board of Governors had made Folt’s already-difficult job harder. (In 2018. UNC President Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. education secretary who was handpicked by fellow Republicans but was not allowed to run the UNC system without GOP meddling, announced she was leaving after less than three years at the post.) And a state law that makes removing monuments like “Silent Sam” nearly impossible put Folt in an unwinnable position.
If only she had found her voice sooner.
If only she had summoned the fortitude she finally displayed this week when UNC was delaying, lawyering up and dissembling (to the tune of nearly $18 million in legal and PR fees) about the fake classes scandal instead of simply admitting what went wrong and fixing it.
And if only she hadn’t tried too often to tiptoe in the middle of issues, rather than take a principled stand, which usually wound up pleasing no one.
To be fair, Folt did inherit that house afire (we didn’t mention a federal investigation that found the university violated Title IX in its handing of sexual assault and harassment cases).
In the end, however, she finally did the right thing. Good for her, at least, that her goodbye came with style and conviction — and with a P.S. for the Board of Governors.