A month after she was named USC’s president-elect, Carol Folt opened up the floor for questions at a reception with student leaders at the Doheny Memorial Library in April. The first one came from Alec Vandenberg, president of Trojan Advocates for Political Progress, who asked about controversial nomenclature on campus — particularly the Von KleinSmid Center, named after the fifth USC President Rufus Bernhard von KleinSmid, a supporter of eugenics.
In her response, Folt referred to a committee that had already been assembled to review nomenclature for USC, which Vandenberg found to be noncommittal and vague. He said he asked the question because when Folt was chancellor at UNC, she ordered the removal of Silent Sam, a confederate statue on campus but not after much controversy.
To some students and faculty at UNC, Folt’s resignation at Chapel Hill — which coincided with her approving the removal of Silent Sam — was seen as politically expedient. They criticized her reluctance to cooperate and lack of communication with students activists who wanted the statue removed sooner. And they were surprised that the USC search committee found her to be the right choice.
In an interview with the Daily Trojan after she was announced as the president-elect, Folt said she was at peace with her decision to step down from her position at UNC.
“When I felt like I could do it and I had all the data, I decided at that moment that I choose to step down,” Folt said when asked about the timing of her resignation.
Geoffrey Cowan, dean emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a member of the USC presidential search committee, praised Folt’s handling of the statue in an interview with the Daily Trojan.
“She resigned in principle, and that takes a person of great courage in a very complicated environment,” Cowan said.
But Donald Haggis, who has taught at UNC the last 26 years as a professor of classical archaeology, disagreed.
“What struck us about more recent coverage is the extraordinary praise that Folt received in handling issues that didn’t seem to reflect the chronology of events or how her actions were received and interpreted at Chapel Hill,” he said.
‘She put her job first’
UNC graduate student Lindsay Ayling, an organizer of the protests surrounding Silent Sam, said Folt demurred on removing the statue from the beginning, even after North Carolina governor Roy Cooper said the university could take the statue down, citing “risk to public safety” following the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in August 2017.
The statue was eventually toppled by protestors in late August. The following January, Folt resigned while calling for the statue’s removal.
“She spoke out of both sides of her mouth,” Ayling said. “She always tried to hint that she personally felt it should be removed even when she was acting to make sure that it stayed.”
Michelle Brown, a recent UNC graduate and leader in the protest movement, said that in closed door meetings with students, Folt admitted she couldn’t remove Silent Sam without risking her job. Publicly, Folt cited a state law that restricts removal of Confederate and other memorials on public property.
“She put her job first,” Brown said.
Brown also described a panel that Folt participated in with black student leaders in which she asked point blank if Silent Sam represents white supremacy (in a speech at the statue’s unveiling in 1913, Julian Carr, a Ku Klux Klan supporter, praised Confederate soldiers and bragged about brutally beating a black woman). There was a period of uncomfortable silence before Folt denied any connection.
“The conversation after she answered that question — it really didn’t go well,” Brown said. “The crowd was pretty upset with her lack of transparency.”
When the Daily Trojan asked Folt about her leadership style, she said transparency is important to her.
“You almost can’t be anything but transparent,” she said. “How does it work in a classroom when a faculty says, ‘I can’t answer that?’ It is very, very difficult. That doesn’t mean there are not things we cannot talk about. I spend a lot of time having people understand there are things that might be difficult or protected. But there are some things that require us in being open and transparent.”
Folt added that nomenclature will be one of the main concerns for universities moving forward.
“That is one chance where you can gauge people from all different viewpoints,” Folt said of nomenclature at USC. “It takes thought and concentration. We will try to address that and bring the historians and the community into it.”
Folt’s history at UNC has not gone unnoticed since she was named president-elect at USC. Rebecca Hu, lead organizer of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, protested at Folt’s introductory press conference. During a meeting with the Student Labor Advocacy Project at UCLA, Hu and other USC students interacted with student activists from UNC.
“She continues to kind of tout the [Silent Sam] story and also mainstream media, when you look at all the articles written about her, [they] credit her and heroize her when it seems there is this entire story that is overlooked about what actually happened,” said Hu, a senior majoring in philosophy.
No stranger to athletic scandals
The first major scandal that Folt handled at UNC involved academic fraud and athletics, in which athletes took so-called “paper classes” that allowed them to remain academically eligible to participate in sports.
“When I was at UNC, the thing that impressed me the most was that the faculty came together and made 70 reforms,” Folt said. “It wasn’t about eliminating athletics, it was about doing it right so that people could get what they needed and deserved.”
Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC who co-authored a book about the scandal, said the reforms Folt instituted were trivial.
“She distinguished herself here to create the illusion of meaningful change while maintaining status quo under the surface,” Smith said.
While it admitted that there was academic fraud, Folt’s administration argued the investigation went beyond the purview of the NCAA because the classes were not exclusive to athletes since all students could register for them.
“It’s just a remarkable position to take for a university,” Smith said.
In October 2017, the NCAA announced it would not sanction UNC because it could not determine if the paper classes constituted an NCAA violation.
At USC, Folt will walk into an athletics scandal of a similar scale, as the University is embroiled in the college admissions bribery scheme in which coaches and athletic administrators allegedly accepted millions of dollars to admit students under fake athletic profiles.
“It gives incredible economic prosperity to the region, not just the University,” Folt said. “And there are so many wonderful things about it that are important. Yet, we have the same obligation [to investigate]. If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right. So I’ve learned a lot [from the UNC scandal].”
In Smith’s mind, Folt prioritized the cash flow athletics provided over academics.
“If there are outsiders or members of the community who said she did the right thing because she protected athletics, well OK,” Smith said. “In the meantime, our academic reputation took a serious blow.”
A need for change
At USC, student leaders have expressed frustration at the lack of transparency around the selection process as well as at the minimal representation of students. In an interview with the Daily Trojan last month, Interim President Wanda Austin declined to state the number of finalists considered for the permanent position. Vandenberg said he thought the process should have been more transparent.
“Who else were options? What even were the guiding values of the search? The search committee said they compiled thousands of students’ and other stakeholders’ comments and values but we don’t really know what the existing framework was for that,” Vandenberg said.
Two open forums were held at the University Park and Health Sciences Campuses to allow community input for the presidential search.
“When we were presented with the listening sessions, I think that the students made it very clear they felt it was a listening session but students were not necessarily heard,” Vandenberg said. “For me, that was very frustrating because it was a facade of representation. It would be a very low commitment to have one or two students advise the search committee.”
Mai Mizuno, a candidate for Undergraduate Student Government president in 2018 who spoke at one of these listening sessions, expressed hesitance about Folt’s ability to bring necessary systemic change.
“While I am encouraged by president-elect Folt’s leadership and moral conviction during her time at UNC, I am skeptical that we will get the systemic change USC needs so long as members of the board and other parts of the administration remain unchanged,” Mizuno, a senior majoring in international relations, philosophy, politics and law, wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “Many of us have not forgotten how students and staff were shut out of the presidential search process — that was a decision made by the Board.”
Folt, however, said she wants to work together with the community and hear from different voices to make change.
“There is an appetite to get it right,” she said. “To come in the middle of a serious challenge like this, if everyone is in denial, it’s so much harder. Nobody is trying to do that. People really want to be a part of the solution, so it’s a great time to be here.”
Cowan said USC needs Folt’s energy to create change in the current climate.
“Institutions go through periods of stress which can provide a period of exciting change,” Cowan said. “I think that the problems we’ve had at the University create an opportunity for an energetic and visionary new president to take the University in really strong directions.”
In an interview last month, Folt said she wants to pick up where Austin left off and keep moving the ball forward in the name of transparency.
“Honestly, accountability, candor,” she said. “If the community wants that, we are already so far ahead.”