Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor in presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and the author of “Messengers of the Right.” She hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and recently released the new podcast “A12.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Monday night, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled “Silent Sam,” the statue of a Confederate soldier that has stood on the campus for over a century. By early Tuesday morning, Chancellor Carol L. Folt, while acknowledging that the statue “was a source of frustration for many people,” had publicly rebuked the students involved, deeming their activism an act of vandalism that was both “unlawful and dangerous.” President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith went further, saying in a statement that “mob rule and intentional destruction of property will not be tolerated.”
Students and others had tried to voice objections by other means before, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s and continuing to the present day. Then-governor Pat McCrory signed a bill in 2015 banning any government agency from removing an “object of remembrance” from public property that “commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.” Smith cited this law on July 30 when he announced the Board would not take any action on the issue of Silent Sam – essentially rejecting a proposal made to the board in March to add historical context (with markers and Bluetooth interactivity, according to the Raleigh News & Observer) to the monument.
Some of these UNC officials tried to couch their criticism of the pulling down of the statue as a safety concern, but at the heart of the matter lies a much bigger issue. UNC student activists aren’t the first to have university officials denounce rather than embrace their anti-racist activism. Given the liberal reputation of universities, that position is confusing. And it raises the question: Why are so many university administrators so quick to distance their institutions from students who are putting the university’s values and ideals into action? These official postures are perplexing, because these students are embodying exactly the sort of citizenship a university is meant to help shape: active, committed, informed, clear-eyed.
So why do universities so often censure rather than celebrate them?
UNC isn’t the only university dealing with these questions. A year ago, white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia’s campus with torches, circling anti-racist protesters who had stationed themselves around a statue of Thomas Jefferson in an effort to protect their university and their community. As campus police looked on passively, white nationalists attacked students and other community members. When students protested the university’s failure to protect them, then-President Teresa Sullivan threw the blame back on the students, saying in a video posted to Facebook Live: “Did you tell us? Did you tell us they were coming? No, you didn’t. Nobody elevated it to us. … You know, you’ve got some responsibility here, too.”
There was one problem with Sullivan’s admonition: the information had been elevated to the highest levels of the university. Officials had chosen not to act. And so, in an act of defensiveness, the university dismissed the students’ clarity and courage in confronting white nationalists, and instead transformed the students into part of the problem.
Historically, universities have been (and some remain) institutions that favor order over other values. At the University of California Berkeley in 1964, for instance, student civil rights activism led university officials to strictly enforce the campus ban on political activity.
That the campus had a ban on political activity was a sign that the university was conflict-averse. The crackdown led to the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and over the course of the 1960s, campus protests spread, linking civil rights and anti-war activism with much-needed reforms at universities, which at the time were quite conservative institutions. They resisted integration by both black students and women, while emphasizing a strictly hierarchal structure in which students had no real voice.
As a result of student activism, however, universities became more liberal, in the broader sense of the word, after the 1960s. They grew more egalitarian, opening their doors to Jewish, non-white, non-elite, and women students. They broadened their course offerings to reflect the more diverse student body. They invited students to have a voice in university administration. And they embraced, however imperfectly, a more democratic vision of the university, emphasizing a diversity of voices and viewpoints, inquiry over dogma, and egalitarianism over hierarchy.
Yet that more open, inquisitive university has generally not embraced the values of an open society as readily as its students have. In part, that’s because university officials don’t just listen to students, but alumni, state lawmakers, and the wealthy. As a result, many universities remain more tradition-bound, more conservative, and more controversy-avoidant than students.
The issue of Confederate statues at places like UNC makes this point clear. Statues like Silent Sam are not just monuments – they are declarations, and false ones at that. They announce that soldiers fighting to preserve slavery were just as honorable as those fighting to preserve the Union. Their defenders argue they were erected as neutral historical markers rather than acts of racial terror.
Neither of these things is true, and the students see that more clearly than administration officials. Or rather, they’re more willing to defend the university against these falsehoods than administrators are. That courage, and the devotion to both historical reality and anti-racism that it embodies, should be applauded by university officials – particularly when, as at both UNC and UVA, the students are doing more to protect the mission of the university than administrators are.
Universities understandably resist disruption to procedure and orderliness. But institutions of higher education surely understand that at pivotal points in American history, the preference for order over disruption has served to maintain an oppressive status quo. Students at UNC and UVA have made clear where their institutions have fallen short. It’s time for university officials to catch up.