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Leadership

Trustees adopt comprehensive approach to curating and teaching campus history

UNC-Chapel Hill BOT Chairman Lowry Caudill said the board’s actions make “an unequivocal statement about Carolina’s values and the importance of continuing to cultivate an inclusive and positive educational atmosphere for our campus.”

An overarching objective of the University Board of Trustees was not to run away from the University’s 221-year history, but to take the necessary steps to ensure students know it and learn from it, both now and in the future.

Toward that end, the board passed three resolutions on May 28 that, together, form a comprehensive approach to telling the University’s full history, or as Chair Lowry Caudill later described it to reporters, a history that represents “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Trustee Chuck Duckett listens to remarks during the Board of Trustees meeting.

Trustee Chuck Duckett listens to remarks during the Board of Trustees meeting May 28.

In the first resolution, the board voted to develop new curation and education initiatives.

The second resolution renames Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall – a move that trustees said was necessary to correct the “error” that University trustees made in 1920 when they recognized William L. Saunders’ leadership in the Ku Klux Klan as a qualification for naming a building in his honor.

A third resolution places a 16-year freeze on renaming historic buildings to provide adequate time for the education programs to be developed and take root.

The vote on the resolution to rename Saunders passed 10 to 3, while the other resolutions passed unanimously.

Caudill said the board’s actions make “an unequivocal statement about Carolina’s values and the importance of continuing to cultivate an inclusive and positive educational atmosphere for our campus.”

Efforts to curate the campus and teach the past with greater context, he added, “will present future generations with a more accurate, complete and accessible understanding of Carolina’s history.”

Written biography of William Saunders. A box is drawn around the phrase "Head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina."

In 1920, University trustees cited William L. Saunders’ leadership in the Ku Klux Klan when they named Saunders Hall.

In removing Saunders’ name, trustees followed UNC-Chapel Hill’s existing policy on renaming campus buildings, which allows revoking an honoree’s name if continuing to use it would “compromise the public trust, dishonor the University’s standards, or otherwise be contrary to the best interests of the University.”

In selecting the new building name, the trustees concluded the best way to reinforce the larger concept of community was to add “Carolina” to the existing “Hall.” The board’s resolution called for installing a plaque in Carolina Hall that states, “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Trustees Alston Gardner and Chuck Duckett, chair and vice chair of the board’s University Affairs Committee, invested more than a year consulting and engaging in constructive dialogue with student groups, faculty, staff, alumni, historians and national experts on curation regarding the difficult issue of race and place.

Gardner said he and other trustees appreciated the passion and initiative of the student group that sought the renaming of Saunders Hall, but said it “is our duty to be responsive to all of the community” and respectful of the differing perspectives other groups may hold.

“We agree with the student activists that the University has not told the complete story of UNC’s history and we seek to rectify that,” Gardner said.

Students had pushed for a mandatory curriculum to teach the racial history of UNC, Gardner said, but that, too, would not have been enough.

A Carolina Hall plaque is attached to a building

A resolution approved by the board calls for installing a plaque in Carolina Hall that will state, “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Instead, Gardner said, the trustees decided to pursue a comprehensive solution to offer “a more complete, accurate and accessible understanding of our history.”

On the other side of the debate over Saunders Hall was the group who “believe we are rewriting history and should leave it alone,” Gardner said.

“I would say to those who tell us not to talk about this we are not changing history,” Gardner said. “We are not rewriting history. We are shining a bright light on it.”

Gardner later emphasized that point with reporters.

“It would be very easy to take a name off of a building and that would be the end of it,” Gardner said. “And there are a number of universities who have done that.”

The problem with that strategy is that it does not educate the next generation of students who arrive to campus four years later who never learn about the history of the person whose name was removed, Gardner said.

“We wanted to tell the complete history of all of the buildings and all the people those buildings were named for so that they have a clear idea of what the issues are – and what they were.”

Chancellor Carol L. Folt said she and her leadership team will be guided by the same care and thoughtful deliberation exemplified by trustees as University moves forward with planning the curation and educational initiatives.

She added that she and her leadership team support the freeze on future name changes because it is the best way to see the educational imperatives flourish.

Among the educational enhancements the University will consider are creating a permanent area on campus to tell the rich and diverse history of UNC-Chapel Hill. The new centralized focus would create a more complete, compelling and powerful storytelling center and make it easier to quickly learn about and reflect upon the full measure of Carolina’s history.

The University also will explore improving websites such as “The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History,” as well as supplementing campus tours that place history in context with an evolving America moving from a painful transformation from slavery through the struggle for civil rights. Folt also will evaluate options for creating an online orientation program or non-credit course.

“Throughout this process, we have learned valuable lessons from our University’s past,” Folt said. “Now it’s time to live in this particular moment by creating an educational program that will honor our traditions of excellence, enlighten our campus community and make Carolina even stronger in the future.”

In his remarks to fellow trustees, Duckett remarked how “it would have been great to have been able to ask Coach (Dean) Smith about this issue.”

Duckett said he reached out to Smith’s cherished friend Robert Seymour, who was Smith’s pastor at Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church and Smith’s early partner in pushing for civil rights in Chapel Hill.

“He said, ‘Chuck, the name over the door is not important. Who welcomes you through the door is.’

Duckett paused to let that idea sink in and added, “We all need to be there to welcome any who come to this university.”