Gov. Roy Cooper’s response to a letter from UNC -System President Margaret Spellings, expressing concerns about student safety surrounding the Silent Sam statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, appeared online on the News & Observer website, before it was received by the UNC Board of Governors.
Marty Kotis, member of the UNC Board of Governors said late Monday night, “What is really interesting is that we still have not received the Governor’s letter, I had to read about it in the N&O.”
The letter from Spellings sent Monday to Cooper was also signed by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC Board of Governors President Lou Bissette and Haywood Cochrane, chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
Kotis said, “We have not received the Governor’s response. The only way we know that he’s responded is reading about it in the online edition of the N&O.”
Kotis also asked why someone would send a letter to the N&O the day before a protest.
“Why in the hell would somebody send that letter, and write their own letter talking about removal of a monument, to the N&O, to probably come out on the front page of the paper the day of the protest,” he said.
“I bet it will be on the front page of the News & Observer,” Kotis continued. “And now the Silent Sam issue, and Tuesday night’s planned protest, may attract people who might not have originally intended to attend the event had they not seen the letters in the paper.”
Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal also expressed concerns about Cooper’s handling of his response. Robinson said in an email, “Governor Cooper overstepped his authority. He should have responded to the UNC Board of Governors and to President Spellings directly before going to the press. Cooper’s intervention is likely to cause more problems than it solves.”
Monday night Kotis said he inquired of Spellings about a response from Cooper, and noted that Spellings said, “We have not received it yet.” Cooper’s letter had already been posted online at that point.
To Kotis, it appeared that someone wanted to get Cooper’s letter out quickly, in which he advised Spellings that his administration stands ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with the university and also referenced that other universities have removed monuments, most notably Duke University, if they felt it was necessary to do so in the interest of safety.
Kotis said, “This is not in any way about the monument, it’s about the handling of the Governor’s letter about the monument. Why was it published online before the Board had received the response from Cooper?”
In a message to Jane Stancill and Dan Kane with the News & Observer, Kotis wrote, “The governor’s handling of this – feeding his response letter to the press (even before we (UNC) receives it) – knowing that a protest for Tuesday was planned – is tantamount to inciting a riot. This situation should have been defused and the students’ safety prioritized over politics. The governor should have worked quietly to help protect the students rather than running a front-page story to rile up extremists on both sides. I am thoroughly disgusted! The N&O should understand the role they are playing here.”
Kotis said that Stancill replied that Cooper does not have influence over when a story is run or what constitutes a front-page story. She further claims she was already writing a story after obtaining a copy of the UNC letter to the governor previously and asked his office for a response. When he did she incorporated that into the article.
“How is penning a letter about removing monuments and sending it to a newspaper helping?” asked Kotis. “That’s like the worst that he could do. It’s likely to turn out bad actors on both sides. I think it’s tantamount to inciting a riot.”
Since Monday night, UNC has erected a fence around the Silent Sam monument in advance of Tuesday night’s planned protest. Kotis said, “When I learned of the original letter from UNC and the concerns about safety – I suggested to the whole Board that they put a fence around the whole area, which they could pop up right away,” Kotis said. “Also, to have a cooling-off period for all groups by preventing them from gathering there. I think it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation about the monuments, as opposed to a mob rule where you let people come in and do whatever they want.
“The various violent hate groups out there are a big problem. The actions over the last 24 hours are likely to throw gasoline on the fire. We should be focused on student safety and how to de-escalate the situation. You don’t send a letter to the paper saying they can pull the monument down before the Board receives it. In the best possible light, perhaps Cooper thought he could help defuse the situation by getting his letter in the paper. In the worst possible light, it was about scoring political points.”