Last November, the UNC System’s Board of Governors (BOG) approved two settlements with the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), one of which would give the organization legal ownership of the highly controversial Silent Sam statue and $2.5 million to preserve it. These were largely decided behind closed doors without input from the community, though administrators like former Chancellor Carol Folt have said in the past that student input is crucial. Additionally, according to a letter written by SCV commander Kevin Stone, multiple legal sources stated that SCV did not have the legal standing to even pursue a lawsuit in the first place.
We find the board’s actions shameful. Not only have they decided to give a large sum of money to an organization with values at odds with the entire UNC System, but the way they went about deciding these settlements is outright underhanded and deceitful. The secretive nature of these deals and the lack of documentation have even led to a lawsuit filed by DTH Media Corp., parent company of UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. We fully support DTH Media Corp. and feel they are justified in pursuing legal action.
DTH Media Corp.’s lawsuit alleges that the BOG violated open meeting laws. The board is a public body and is therefore required to publicize that meetings are scheduled, allow public attendance and provide minutes for both open and closed sessions, according to North Carolina General Statutes sections 143-318. The meeting regarding the second settlement, dealing with ownership of Silent Sam and $2.5 million, was held on Wednesday, Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving Day, and was only announced two days prior, on Monday, Nov. 25. The timing of this meeting was not conducive for any student input, and even if it was scheduled at a time more convenient for student participation, the announcement contained no information about the substance of the meeting.
Further insight into the BOG’s reasoning is provided by a letter from SCV’s commander, Kevin Stone, which describes secret months-long negotiations undertaken by the BOG with the neo-Confederates for the explicit purpose of hashing out a deal while eliminating the possibility of public pushback that would have killed the agreement. This combination of secret meetings, timing of the announcement and the explicit statement of one of the parties involved in the agreement shows that the BOG was intentionally working to keep the public from having any input into the deal, despite it knowing that paying millions of dollars to neo-Confederates would be unpopular. This effort to knowingly keep unpopular actions from the public is entirely unacceptable for an organization that oversees North Carolina’s public university system, which is funded with public money and intended for the benefit of the people of North Carolina.
While public bodies are allowed to go into closed session, these are only very specific circumstances, like to prevent the disclosure of confidential information. A substantial portion of the Nov. 27 meeting was held in closed session, and meeting minutes did not sufficiently explain what conversations were about. Even some members of the SCV detest the decision because of how secretly it was conducted. Hiding critical details of such a decision does not inspire confidence in our university system’s leadership and only makes us further suspicious of its motives.
Besides the numerous severe deficiencies with the decision making process behind this deal, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans is not an organization that the UNC BOG should be seeking to support. In stark contrast with the UNC System’s mission to “to discover, create, transmit, and apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society,” the Sons of Confederate Veterans espouse a historically inaccurate “Lost Cause” ideology that seeks to portray the Civil War as happening primarily over “states' rights,” rather than slavery. Spending $2.5 million to support a group which works to misinform the public with a blatantly untrue historical narrative is irresponsible at best and works directly counter to the mission of the UNC System to provide well-researched historical insights to the people of North Carolina.
The SCV’s ahistorical views are not the only issues at play, however. SCV members have worked with the Ku Klux Klan and League of the South, two white supremacist hate groups, to organize and participate in demonstrations in North Carolina. This close collaboration between SCV members and other, more explicitly white supremacist groups raises the concern that settlement funds may benefit other white supremacist groups, at least indirectly. This is especially troubling considering the broad terms given in the agreement, which allows for SCV to purchase property, build facilities and pay for “other reasonably necessary and appropriate costs and expenses” for the preservation of Silent Sam. Even some members of the SCV are concerned that the settlement money will be used to build a museum with “racist overtones,” and help fund the SCV’s “mechanized cavalry,” a motorcycle-based SCV subgroup with alleged ties to the Hells Angels and Outlaws motorcycle gangs, which are legally classified as criminal groups by the Department of Justice. While the BOG presents itself as caring about the safety of UNC students, faculty and staff, it’s hard to imagine any rational person accepting that providing massive amounts of money to an organization with white supremacist ties is a reasonable approach to guaranteeing student, staff and faculty safety.
The BOG’s move to rid itself of the Silent Sam issue by partnering with the Sons of Confederate Veterans represents a profound betrayal to the UNC System community. A situation as crucial and sensitive as the Silent Sam issue deserves a thorough, public examination, while this deal, conducted in months-long secret negotiations with a neo-Confederate group, does not live up to even the most basic standards of public transparency and oversight. We fully support DTH Media Corp. in its decision to file a legal complaint against the board due to the BOG’s flagrant disregard for open-meeting laws. Even setting aside the procedural issues behind this deal, funding a group with white supremacist ties which promotes a false historical narrative shows a complete disregard for the mission of the UNC System and the well-being of its students and calls into serious question the integrity of the BOG members involved in this debacle, as well as its ability to lead the UNC System through future crises. The BOG should seek to immediately nullify this deal and move forward with a public, transparent process to resolve the issue of Silent Sam once and for all.