Solving the Silent Sam Problem: A Speculative Account

By now, all of the higher-education world is familiar with the saga of Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier erected on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. As a symbol of the racist history of the South’s effort to create a slaveholders’ nation, the statue has been (accurately) characterized as being entirely inappropriate for the campus of a purportedly modern university.

Defending White Supremacy: the Silent Sam statue under guard during 2017 campus protests (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

As we’ve seen in recent years, though, there is no shortage of those who would defend what are essentially the quintessential historical example of participation trophies. Thus, their place in the public eye remains hotly contested. Protests have toppled Confederate monuments in places like Durham, NC, but white supremacists and nazis protested against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA. Recently, at UNC, Silent Sam was toppled from its pedestal, and there has been uncertainty about what the university will do with this monument to slaveholders’ hubris ever since. Today, it was announced that Chancellor Carol Folt was recommending a plan–one overwhelmingly endorsed by the university’s trustees–to create a $5 million-dollar building to house Silent Sam and “protect” the statue from further efforts to remove it from campus.

Rumored design of Silent Sam’s new building?

How could the university’s leadership make such a controversial, and seemingly misguided and tone-deaf, decision? One answer is simply that’s what white people often do when it comes to racism.

But in this blog’s unyielding commitment to snark and satire, we suspect an additional set of reasons is in play. So in an exclusive reveal, we present to you the rough draft of the committee memo to Chancellor Folt. We were able to acquire this text only through an intricate operation involving dozens of moles, double agents, and stunt doubles. MANY BOTHANS DIED TO BRING US THIS INFORMATION. [1]

Without further ado, here is the draft report from the Committee on Saving Face and Placating Crusty Old White Racists, or CSFPCOWR:

“As requested, this committee has reviewed extant options for resolving the current difficulties surrounding the Silent Sam statue and its place on the Chapel Hill campus. The first available course of action is to continue in the present course: the statue has been taken down, so perhaps one could argue that leaving it down, issuing a statement telling the campus “it’s time to heal and move forward,” and then letting ill-will evaporate over time would be the prudent option. There would be no additional resources necessary, reason would prevail, and the controversy would likely disappear from the headlines. Pursuing his option would involve a minimal amount of both resources and controversy. The committee would like to point out this is not the type of Bold, Innovative Leadership for which chancellors are known. Thus, we recommend against this option.

Instead, we suggest the University re-erect Silent Sam on an even larger pedestal and place the statue in a more prominent and secure setting than where it previously resided. We recommend the demolition of Hamilton Hall and its replacement with a specially-constructed building to house Silent Sam, a shrine to the Confederacy, and a Gift Shop. We also recommend rehousing the displaced History Department in temporary offices behind the maintenance compound. This innovative allocation of physical resources will reinforce the already clear message the University has sent about how it values History. As Chancellor, you are aware that there is no better claim to Bold, Innovative Academic Leadership than a policy which involves millions of dollars diverted from other academic budgets and has a high probability of angering the faculty. These are the Hard Choices which define an administrative tenure. We have confidence that you are committed to the true mission of the University, which is of course embodied by a handful of revanchist trustees whose sole contact with college students is leering at the hostess in the Board’s private dining room.

Obviously, re-erecting Silent Sam raises legitimate concerns surrounding security. We know from the 2017 events in Charlottesville that if reactionaries and Nazis, tacitly encouraged by national politicians and local police, descend on a college campus for a two-day orgy of violence and hate that it is clearly the fault of that college’s students. Careful examination from this committee has determined that there are also college students here on our Chapel Hill campus–thousands of them in fact, each one representing a clear security risk. Therefore the committee recommends a fortified perimeter for Silent Sam, with razor wire and motion sensors and a team of snipers deployed for 24 hours a day. While some might object to the costs involved, we are confident that the funds available in the deferred maintenance budget are more than adequate to offset the startup price. Moreover, prospective students and their families will have visible evidence of the University’s commitment to student safety, likely leading to a bump in admissions yield, which we include in the attached financial estimate as a medium-term cost recovery.

There will be those who challenge University leadership on this matter, using the typical tenured-faculty playbook to argue that non-cost-center areas like “academic resources” and “student success” will be sacrificed for this project. The committee urges the Chancellor’s office to disregard these irresponsible, obstructionist objections as per usual. There is also an objection from some quarters that Silent Sam represents “white supremacy,” and Julian Carr’s speech at the statue’s 1913 dedication represents the worst aspects of the South’s violent racism. We strenuously object to this revisionist history, and urge the Chancellor to read Carr’s speech at the re-dedication ceremony. The committee can think of no better way to signal the University’s steadfast commitment to persisting in a willfully myopic and ultimately doomed effort than offering paeans to the original Lost Cause.

There will also be critics who charge that this renewed presence of Silent Sam on campus sends a hostile message to racial minorities, particularly our African American students, faculty, and staff. We disagree. If Silent Sam were to remain down, if the campus does not value maintaining its statuary in pristine early-twentieth century condition, then all we hold dear about our academic culture will come to an end. The committee cannot identify a way to cultivate an environment of academic rigor that does not involve belittling students and stripping them of agency. Thus, we recommend the University continue its pursuit of this objective.

The committee also suggests that the re-erection of Silent Sam is an opportunity to resolve the larger problem of minority-student retention. The data is clear that students from racial minorities do not progress towards their degree or graduate at nearly the same rate as do white students. This has led critics to make unfounded, absurd suggestions that “structural inequality” and “white privilege” are to blame, which is of course a serious public relations problem. The committee believes that allocating even more attention and resources to Silent Sam will send a clear signal to students from racial minority groups that they should enroll elsewhere. If there are no minority students enrolled, there are no minority students to count in retention data. Problem solved. Some might claim this strategy is the wrong solution to a pressing problem. We disagree. It’s this type of Bold, Innovative, and Out-Of-The-Box thinking that defines True Leaders. It’s the same type of counterintuitive approach that defined the U.S. military’s village-saving program in Vietnam, and if it’s a military practice, it must be leadership. Those are the rules. Having thus landed on a dubious historical precedent, the Committee is pleased to recommend the strategy to University leadership.

The Committee respectfully submits this report to the Chancellor and Trustees. We recommend bold and decisive action, the type only a Chancellor can provide in these trying times.”

Note: I can’t believe that I really need to put this disclaimer here, but all of the above is fictional. I know, I know–It seemed to capture the tenor so well. But alas, dear reader, ’tis satire.

  1. [1] SEE?