Had Dick Riley heeded his father’s advice and not run for political office years ago, South Carolina’s modern history might have been shaped in an entirely different manner. For starters, Riley’s famed Education Improvement Act might not have come to fruition and served as a catalyst to galvanize the people of this state in an effort to get more education funding and a better education for all of its students. On a national level, President Bill Clinton would not have had his two-term secretary of education; a man heralded as a staunch education reformer
Instead, Riley followed his own heart and South Carolina and country are better because of his insubordination.
Riley sat down with Phil Noble at the Greenville University Center to discuss his career and thoughts on how to make SCtruly world class.
Q: Talk about the cultural change and social impact that the Education Improvement Act helped foster in South Carolina.
Education to me is the answer to all of our needs to the future. We were the lowest to monetarily support education of any state other than I believe Mississippi. We had to have more money in the system. The Education Improvement Act was a people’s movement and I was very proud of that. I couldn’t do but so much then in the Legislature because it was controversial. ... We had to win the House and that was very difficult. We got out of the Legislature into the public domain and it was very well received. The people kind of rose up. Every legislator had a stack of calls from people back in their districts. Every office hallway was crowded with people ... we picked up more and more and we finally got it done. ... If people get into education, get supportive of education, they support all levels of education. Even private education. Home schools. Whatever. And that changed ... the way people felt about themselves.
Q: Are the lessons of this still applicable today? And by this I mean bypassing the leadership and taking it to the grass roots level; to the people. Is that still a viable model?
It’s a model that really is a movement. I think it’s about time to develop a movement of that kind. The thing that I’ve been so interested in and involved with is the Riley Institute at Furman University, which has a great program called the Diversity Leadership Initiative. We have all of our alumni, 400 to 500 people; meet once a year and the topic ... is “One South Carolina.” That is what I think perhaps could be the next movement. It involves the word diversity. I would like to see South Carolina become a garden of diversity. Where people from other countries, ... other cultures say: “You know, here’s a small state of 30 percent blacks, 6 percent Hispanics ... they are, they are one state. They are all working together. They believe in each other. They want to help each other.” It’s not us and them. That to me is most important.
Q: How does the world or the rest of the country view South Carolina?
Most people that know the state love to come here. South Carolina has a very strong reputation for being pro-business. That’s something I support. I want people to say South Carolina is a state that is committed to education and to diversity.
Q: In terms of the message that you think we should strive to deliver to the world, is it we are in some ways the state that is leading in our commitment to education and in some ways leading in diversity?
To me that would be ideal. That touches everything. It touches character. It touches values. It touches competence. It touches all of the other important aspects of life, in my judgment. South Carolina is very interested in religion and spiritual things. ... And that can also be a part of this effort. I would love to see that. We need to get over all of those humps: race, religion, culture, whatever and become one people. And I’d like to see us do that. And do that with education.
Q: What are the barriers in your mind to our being able to accomplish these goals with regards to education and diversity?
The one big barrier is that we’re a conservative state. And I’m a conservative Democrat. We have a difficult time turning loose the past. We perceive that to be a conservative thing, and it can be in many ways looked at as being conservative; not wanting to change. ... I would like to see that change. That’s typical generally of South Carolinians. We love where we are. We love what we’re doing. We love our families. Our communities. But we kind of reach into the past to pull that forward when we should be changing some things. Not everything. A lot of things in the past are great. We have some peaks and we have some valleys. We don’t need to hold on to those valleys to pull us into the future.
About this series
This is the third in a series for Envision SC, an initiative where the state’s brightest thinkers share their perspectives to inspire the state to become world class in technology, education and business. It is sponsored by the College of Charleston with the SC Chamber of Commerce, newspapers, TV stations and others. Interviews are done by Charleston businessman Phil Noble.
Richard W. “Dick” Riley
Education: Furman University, USC School of Law
Occupation: Senior partner, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP and its affiliate, Education Counsel LLC.; former SC governor –1979-87; former Secretary of Education – 1993-2001
Also: Distinguished professor at USC, Furman
Named one of the Top 10 Cabinet members
of the 20th century by Time magazine
Video: An interview with Dick Riley
An interview with conservationist Brad Wyche, executive director of Upstate Forever, will appear in The State’s printed editions on Tuesday on Page A2 and at thestate.com/envisionSC.