UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt leaves her job Thursday after nearly six years of leading the university through a series of turbulent events.
But as she bade farewell to her fellow Tar Heels, she wrote in her last email, “my heart is full.” She said she is “at complete peace” with her decision to resign, announced the same day that she ordered the takedown of the base of the controversial Silent Sam statue earlier this month.
It was Silent Sam that dogged her final year and a half as chancellor. Her decision to remove all traces of the Confederate monument won her kudos from many former critics in her final two weeks at the helm.
Speaking to the campus Board of Trustees at her final appearance before them as chancellor on Thursday, Folt quoted Dr. Seuss, who said: “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” Folt said, “And that is absolutely where I am today. I’m feeling very filled with gratitude and excitement.”
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Folt also said she was feeling a little bit like a college senior, “although I’m graduating a little bit early,” a reference to the UNC Board of Governors’ decision, on the day she removed the statue’s base, to cut short her tenure. She had previously planned to stay through graduation.
She thanked former UNC presidents, faculty, staff, trustees and senior administrators, saying she had been overwhelmed by the response of those who have offered her support. She made no mention of the Board of Governors.
“It’s an amazing thing to be chancellor of America’s first public university,” she said. “We have the opportunity to do things nobody else has.”
Folt arrived on campus in the midst of a damaging athletic and academic scandal involving 3,100 students and 18 years of African history classes that did not meet and required little work. The no-show classes disproportionately enrolled athletes and helped keep them eligible to compete by awarding high grades. The courses had been the subject of media reports and internal campus probes, but the depth of the scandal was clearly revealed in a 2014 investigative report by a former federal prosecutor.
Later, the university was put on probation by its accrediting organization — a big black eye for a nationally prominent university. Folt and the administration had to set about answering the questions and demands from the accreditor, while also dealing with possible NCAA sanctions. In the end, UNC escaped punishment in 2017 from the NCAA, which left it up to the university to determine whether the case constituted academic fraud. The university’s lawyers had argued that the classes were not fraudulent — a claim that drew criticism from some quarters.
As the scandal dragged on for years, Folt struggled to turn the public’s attention to the university’s successes, including a surge in federal research dollars and a fundraising campaign that has so far raised $2.46 billion toward a $4.25 billion goal.
By many measures, the university was healthier than ever, including record applications for admission, scientific prowess, high graduation rates and relative affordability compared to public universities in other states.
But the Silent Sam issue became more urgent following the 2017 white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville, Va. Folt and former UNC President Margaret Spellings asked North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to take the Silent Sam question to the state historical commission, but the leaders faced fierce criticism from a faction of the Board of Governors, who complained that they weren’t consulted.
A state law prevented the campus from removing the monument, and it remained, through sit-ins and protests that were increasingly aimed at Folt. On Aug. 20, the statue was pulled down during a protest before the start of the academic year, but the controversy only intensified. A series of protests resulted in arrests and accusations of aggressive police behavior toward students. Some UNC Board of Governors members expressed their position that the monument should be put back up, but faculty and student groups said it created a hostile and unsafe environment.
Folt said the statue didn’t belong “at the front door” of a welcoming university. Eventually, assigned to come up with a solution to preserve the statue, she and her Board of Trustees proposed a new, $5.3 million history center that would house Silent Sam and tell the university’s history in a more complete context.
That idea was unpopular and was quickly rejected by the Board of Governors. A board committee was formed to work with Folt and the trustees to come up with another proposal.
But Folt announced her decision to step down on Jan. 14, and simultaneously ordered the statue’s pedestal removed.
“Not everybody has to agree with what people do, but I did what I thought was best, and I’m at peace with that,” Folt said Thursday, telling university trustees and administrators, “I do believe that the wisdom in this room will find the right solution for this university, and I really do have trust and faith in that.
“Our responsibility is to make wonderful things happen on our campus, to enrich the prosperity and well-being of this state, and even more, to make sure that this is a place where our students, and our staff and our faculty thrive and feel safe.”
Later, in answering questions about Silent Sam from reporters, she said: “You know, we’ve been through a lot of things, and I was very honest when I said that I also believe we’re in a great position for a new transition. Sometimes when you go through something like that, it’s good to bring a new person in.”
Folt said she had not decided her future, and she is only beginning to really think about it. She said she looks forward to being a part of the UNC community, but she didn’t know if she would be back on UNC’s faculty.
She said she’s working on a research paper, adding, “I’ve got a lot of exciting thoughts about higher ed and where it should go, and I want to continue to be a part of that.”
Interim UNC system President Dr. Bill Roper said Thursday he’s weighing the suggestions of others about who should succeed Folt as an interim chancellor. He said he should have a decision by the middle of next week. In the meantime, Provost Bob Blouin will fill the leadership role.
“You listen, and that’s what I’m trying to do, very carefully,” he said to reporters, “and I think that’s altogether appropriate.”
At the trustee meeting, Folt received a standing ovation and resolution of praise from the trustees, and Cooper inducted her into North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which comes with the prerogative of a special state toast that includes the lines, “where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, Here’s to ‘down home,’ the Old North State!”
“It meant a lot,” Folt said of the honor. “I’ve been kidding people and saying I’m going to give that toast at every party at my house now.”