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UNC-Chapel Hill to 'take action' against protesters who participated in recent campus demonstrations

Protesters pulled down an American flag and raised a Palestinian flag at UNC Chapel Hill's Polk Place.
Peyton Sickles
Protesters pulled down an American flag and raised a Palestinian flag at UNC Chapel Hill's Polk Place.

UNC-Chapel Hill will be “pursuing action” against protesters who’ve held pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus in the past month.

During a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday morning, Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts said the university is reviewing information collected during the protests.

“No one has the right to disrupt campus operations, threaten or harass others, shut down a speaker or destroy public property,” Roberts said. “Now that commencement is over, information collected during recent events is being reviewed to pursue potential violations of policies and applicable laws.”

Roberts specifically mentioned two demonstrations. One where protesters blocked all exits of an administrative building and followed people who left the building to their cars and blocked traffic on Franklin Street as administrators drove away.

Protesters block the side entrance of South Building during a rally on May 8, 2024.
Brianna Atkinson
Protesters block the side entrance of South Building during a rally on May 8, 2024.

Another demonstration was hours before UNC’s graduation commencement, where protesters poured red paint over the steps of South building and wrote messages outside of it. South Building houses the Chancellor’s office.

In his remarks, Roberts also commended other university leaders and campus police for “the way they’ve handled the disruptions.”

“Our police were able to clear the Polk Place encampment quickly,” Roberts said. “This occurred days after protesters refused to follow state and university policies regarding tents after previously complying with and working with our student affairs team.”

Several people, including a majority of Chapel Hill and Carrboro town council members, have condemned that same response. Protesters claim they were shoved roughly to the ground and pepper sprayed during a peaceful protest. Some town council members have echoed this sentiment in a letter, saying UNC’s campus police response was an “overreaction.” Neither Chapel Hill nor Carrboro police were involved in responding to the protests.

“UNC administration created an environment that inevitably resulted in an escalation of force, including the use of pepper spray against its own students,” reads the letter. “This use of aggressive police tactics against students and community members invites aggressive responses, and only serves to escalate an already tense situation.”

This decision by town police to not respond during the encampment late last month was one of the main points of discussion during a special meeting of the Board of Trustees earlier this week.

“It is a shame that the town of Chapel Hill refuses to aid our local university police when called upon,” said David Boliek, the chair of the budget and finance committee. “The $2.3 million would be an added help to what is probably a budget issue with respect to how much we’re having to spend on law enforcement right now.”

At that same meeting, the board voted to redirect $2.3 million of diversity, equity and inclusion funding to public safety. Trustee Marty Kotis suggested using the money to fund a “live response center” and mobile campus security forces.

“When you destroy property or you take down the U.S. flag and you have to put up gates around it – that costs money,” Kotis said. “It’s imperative that we have the proper resources for law enforcement to protect the campus. That means our property and that means our flag as well.”

This vote has led to protests of its own. Yesterday, protesters interrupted a Board of Trustees committee meeting and threw fliers reading “shame on you, Marty Kotis.” Protesters were removed from the meeting by campus police and remained outside for about 30 minutes before dispersing.

Protesters threw up fliers as they were escorted out of the Board of Trustees meeting.
Brianna Atkinson
Protesters threw up fliers as they were escorted out of the Board of Trustees meeting.

Roberts said that while the university plans to “take action” against those involved in various demonstrations, it will only be done at the university level.

“I’ll leave prosecutions up to the legal system,” Roberts said.

Next week, the UNC System Board of Governors will be voting on a DEI policy of its own. The board will be voting on whether to remove a policy that mandates DEI offices and positions at all 17 system campuses.

Last month, a BOG committee voted to remove the policy. If the full board follows this vote, the policy removal will be effective immediately. The vote will also require individual university chancellors to show how they will reduce “force and spending” for DEI initiatives.

Even though the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees already voted to remove its university’s DEI funding, Roberts said the university is waiting for “implementation guidelines (from the UNC System) to understand exactly how to redirect our funding.”

When asked if he would support redirecting funding to public safety, Roberts said he’s going to have to wait to see what the Board of Governors’ final policy looks like.

“I don’t know what the final policy is going to look like,” Roberts said. “I’m not sure anybody who’s not on the Board of Governors knows what the final policy is going to look like. The meeting is still a week away and we don’t know what the implementation guidelines will be.”

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.