CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Preventing teachers and researchers from being distracted by problems swirling around North Carolina's public universities - including an ideological divide over the future of a Confederate memorial on the flagship campus - is a top priority for the 17-campus system's interim president, he said Friday.
William Roper addressed the University of North Carolina's governing board for the first time since the group pushed out his predecessor and the head of the flagship Chapel Hill campus.
"There are a lot of people in North Carolina who care about higher education. We're strong because of that. But we must have some calm and stability - regular order and process - so that we can all keep our eye on our students, our classrooms, our labs, our hospitals, our communities," said Roper, who previously headed the UNC health care network and medical school and worked for both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Roper said while he decried the Confederate statue nicknamed "Silent Sam" being ripped down by protesters from its prominent spot on the Chapel Hill campus in August, it shouldn't be restored.
"My personal position is, we should not be putting the monument back on McCorkle Place," he said. The statue had stood on the prominent plaza named for a slave-owning educator since 1913, when it was dedicated with a white-supremacist speech by a former Confederate.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt was pushed out of her job early after she ordered the removal of the granite base left behind after the statue above it was yanked off last summer. Folt said she acted to protect public safety because the pedestal remained a focal point of passionate protests, both pro and con.
Surprised by Folt's unilateral move, university governors gave her until next week to leave. On Friday, the board gave Roper authority to negotiate her exit package.
Finding a temporary substitute for Folt has been Roper's top focus since taking over as universities president from Margaret Spellings 10 days ago, he said. Spellings, former President George W. Bush's education secretary, resigned in October after repeatedly clashing with governors.
Roper said he would replace Folt with someone who knew they would hold the job for perhaps 18 months while a national search for a permanent replacement is recruited.
"It will need to be a person who knows the situation here and is known by the people here" in North Carolina, Roper said. "This needs to be somebody who is a person of stature, who has the gravitas, to see what needs happen to move the university forward."
Roper, 70, ducked a question about whether he would seek to stay on as president of the public university system. "We'll just see how it all works out," he said.
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