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March 6, 2021

Other voices: UNC, Board of Governors lied to the public

Here’s a dirty little secret that’s not much of a secret: Some of what you read from business and other leaders isn’t written by the person who takes credit for it. That company-wide note from your CEO or press release from your member of Congress? They quite possibly were crafted by communications professionals before being reviewed and revised by the “author.” It’s a common practice and not unethical, so long as the authors sign off on the words attributed to them.

So it was with a December 2019 op-ed written for the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer by five members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors — Jim Holmes, Darrell Allison, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho. (Allison and Rucho are no longer on the board.) In the op-ed, the authors explained how and why they reached a deal to pay $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to take UNC’s controversial Silent Sam statue off campus and display it elsewhere.

“We reached an agreement with the SCV,” wrote the authors, who explained the details and process. “We remain convinced that our approach offered a lawful and lasting path that ensures the monument never returns to campus,” they concluded.

That op-ed was a lie. A settlement reached between the UNC system and UNC-CH’s student-run newspaper revealed last week that the five board members never worked with each other on a Silent Sam deal, which actually was negotiated and executed by lawyers behind closed doors.

The group of five also didn’t write the 2019 op-ed, which was crafted by now-former UNC System Vice President for Communications Earl Whipple. In a deposition given as part of the Daily Tar Heel lawsuit, Whipple said he had no knowledge of the group of five having any meetings regarding Silent Sam. He also said those five members did not present the $2.5 million deal to the board, as the op-ed said they did.

There should be no confusion about this. UNC and its Board of Governors lied to the public and allowed that falsehood to remain the narrative surrounding the Silent Sam deal.

The five board members, by allowing their names on false content, also lied. It was violation of trust and a betrayal of the standards the university holds for itself, its faculty and its students.

It was, however, consistent with the secrecy that shrouded the Silent Sam deal. How intent was UNC to avoid the public’s glare? As part of the negotiations, the board agreed to pay SCV an extra $74,999 not to display flags and banners on university campuses. Under state law, any payment over $75,000 would need the review of state Attorney General Josh Stein.

As often happens, the secrecy led to unexamined incompetence. Last February, Orange County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour nullified the Silent Sam settlement because the SCV lacked standing to bring its lawsuit in the first place.

It was an embarrassing episode that might have been avoided if the public were given a chance to review and comment.

Instead, details were forced into daylight, thanks largely to the reporting and persistence of the Daily Tar Heel staff. Perhaps UNC could take some of those millions saved from the canceled deal and make a contribution to the independent student newspaper, which has operated in the best tradition of shedding light on public officials acting privately.

As for the five op-ed authors? They should ask themselves who they thought they were serving by feeding the public a false Silent Sam narrative. They also should soul-search on whether they’re truly committed to the public service their positions demand. At the least, they should deliver an apology accompanied by a full explanation of their participation in the op-ed and the Silent Sam deal. This time, they might want to be more careful with their words.

— The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer

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