On the night of December 8, after proctoring the final exam for the undergraduate course I teach, I got the phone call that I simultaneously needed and dreaded.
“What are your thoughts on participation?” my co-instructor asked. “I have so many overlapping concerns that I don’t know where to begin!” I exclaimed. Indeed I was distressed over how to respond to the call, issued by a group of graduate students, to organize a collective labor action in protest of the chancellor’s and Board of Trustees’ announcement earlier that week about the University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill’s infamous Confederate statue, Silent Sam.
We talked about occupational and emotional precarity, deep moral conviction, and the value of our voices in the context of our own and others’ education. Since the stunning announcement of a proposal to build a multimillion-dollar history “pavilion” for the statue, organizers had been working tirelessly for days to cultivate a unified response. We convened passionately with our peers, and now we would need to determine if and how we would be personally involved in the growing resistance to Silent Sam’s return to campus.
Today, December 14, the UNC statewide system’s Board of Governors will vote on this proposal to give Silent Sam a new, expensive home on campus. Grad students will release grades if the statue remains off campus and the BoG agrees to listen to the community “in good faith.”
The statue, dedicated in 1913 in honor of young men from UNC who stopped studying to join the Confederacy and lost their lives, stood high on a pedestal over the main pedestrian entrance to campus from downtown Chapel Hill. Not only did its presence serve to glorify the war fought by the South in defense of slavery, its dedication speech by Julian Carr dripped with racism, sexism, and violence. Furthermore, students and alumni can attest to the misogynist legend about why Sam was silent.
This was never about not giving our students their grades. The vast majority of graduate student instructors, especially in the humanities, care genuinely about the students they teach. Our lives are largely suspended in this engagement with students while we are in this relationship with the academy: We exist here for and because of the students, and in the classroom is where we can exercise the most agency. If our students are unsafe and unheard, what kind of education can they receive? We cannot take this lightly.
And, actually, the idea of grades as revocable currency is one that is normally enforced by the university, especially for financial reasons. Need a transcript to accompany that application? Make sure you have no outstanding library fines or parking tickets.
What a surprise that grad students should turn this on its head, calling for the withholding of final grades as a protest action. Grades and due dates are the bane of my existence as a UNC graduate student: but they are also the infrastructure of the higher education system.
Grades as a product of grad student labor are the symbol for quotidian power usually rendered invisible by the university’s hierarchies: Grades must be assigned, paper trails must be kept, and grad students must shut up and keep producing, never diverting effort or energy from authorized channels. In this case, however, about 80 of us had already committed to holding onto grades as a way of juxtaposing our own chronic underfunding with the large sum necessary for a proposed $5.3 million center to relocate Silent Sam. The key demand in this action is the withdrawal of the Board of Trustees proposal.
What made this proposal particularly salient — and objectionable — to grad students is that at UNC, we languish below the poverty level, without dental insurance, and with the lowest average stipends (wages) of any peer institution. The expenditures called for in the BOT proposal threw our relative suffering in our faces. What if $5.3 million were instead invested, or even imagined as a fruitful idea, into grad student health care, child care, and parking on campus during teaching hours?
From the various conversations in which I participated, it is clear that some graduate students have it harder than others. Grad students who have families to support face must win competitive fellowships or perform additional labor outside the university (which it strongly discourages). The pitching, publishing, and presenting that constitutes an enormous amount of grad students’ time and energy appears nowhere in calculations of our worth to the university. The hierarchical system to which we are consigned, dependent on it to christen us with doctoral authority, is constantly shaping us into the mechanical turks it needs to lurch forward, selling knowledge and legitimacy on a linear path with a particular history.
What the system fails to recognize by way of respect, compensation, or rhetoric is how dependent the university is on our labor. UNC-Chapel Hill ranks among the top five universities where graduate instructors teach the most classes.
We embody the university’s past, present, and future in ways that the undergraduate students it purports to privilege simply aren’t. They haven’t made the same commitment to scholarship that we have. Nor will they generally be in residence for as long. They certainly are not responsible for inculcating cutting-edge knowledge, the university’s prime export, into future generations as we are. The grad action, for one thing, makes this relationship apparent: We are the exploited labor in the university’s neoliberal profit scheme and if we say nothing, we remain complicit in all of it.
Grappling with this decision brought the past 20+ years into relief. In 1997, I was a UNC undergraduate when I chose to found a multicultural sorority as an anti-racist strategy. Guided by the history of SNCC organizer Ella Baker and her facilitative leadership approach, I teach courses today on civic action to help bring about a feminist future. I am a graduate student instructor in two academic departments, parent of two sons, and a woman from two racial and geographic backgrounds.
I am also morally obligated to denounce racism, sexism, classism, and terrorism because I am a descendant of both U.S. presidents AND enslaved Africans, and because palpable anxiety about the world my teenage son is inheriting is damaging his mood, sleep, and grades (read: potential). In a few years, he could be a UNC student. Intergenerational trauma is real, and Silent Sam is a tool of its infliction on many of the university community’s members.
These two-nesses underscore the intersectional approach of this grad action. This intersectional approach helps me to see how difficult it is to speak at a time like this. It depends on the degree of safety the system has guaranteed to a person, and how much fear it can impose as a consequence for disloyalty. And UNC has noted that there could be consequences: Grade withholders can be billed for their covered tuition and health insurance, and lose their ability to teach in the future.
People I know are quite torn between their securing family’s livelihood if they are not rehired next semester and this action’s alignment with their personal and professional values. Interests versus conscience — classic democratic capitalist catch-22. Graduate instructors are contractually obligated to the university for grading duties among other things, and over the course of the action, we have been threatened with the possibility of legal proceedings from UNC, students, or their families.
The stakes are high. But they are higher if we do nothing.
In analyzing this #StrikeDownSam action and seeking a resolution to the monument’s long controversial history, it is necessary to consider solidarity. UNC’s grad students and their faculty, undergraduate, staff, activist, alumni, and other allies are all part of the solution, which means that their unique positions must be taken into account through dialogue and representation. The resolution passed during this week’s Faculty Council meeting was one tangible contribution to this effort, but more are needed. All the better if such convenings are public, as the many hasty meetings of the past week have been. With space made for genuine dialogue, perhaps protest actions would become less of a fear and thereby, projected expense, of the university.
Before, during, and after dialogue takes place, members of the UNC community must consciously develop new ethics of care. Rather than seeking to appease the old guard whose sentiments are no longer widely appreciated but whose dollars and authority hold deep sway across the state, we must care about the well-being and act in accordance with the will of the people living, working, and creating new knowledge, on the campus, in the now. Regardless of any specific outcome of the grad action, #StrikeDownSam serves, for UNC as well as for me personally, as a reckoning with integrity. As my students have taught me, we each need care and solidarity, to express our whole selves and be seen and heard, and to contribute our labor and agency to a place where it is collectively valued. The legacy of the first public university is on the line, and no wound can heal well without care.
Meli Kimathi — a nonprofit manager, educator and social worker by training, lifetime learner and interdisciplinary practitioner by experience — labors at the intersections of race, gender, and culture to activate wisdom, words, and ways for community-rooted possibilities. Meli is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, where her engaged public humanities scholarship explores the healing work of DJs through African diaspora music in live party spaces.