Clemson University President James "Jim" Clements told faculty this week the Administration intends to do more to create new initiatives after a recent semester marked by racial tension from social media blowups and a white student party viewed as racially insensitive.
The institution will take an honest look at recent years of trying to make the university's culture welcoming to everyone to see what went right and what still needs help.
Clements, president for a year at the nearly 22,000 student university, said he and his executive team will review recent years of plans, policies and recommendations intended for everyone to achieve success— students, faculty, staff and the administration. And then he plans more studies and additional policy evaluations.
"We know that these actions will not prevent occasional thoughtless or hurtful remarks or acts," he said this week during the final faculty member meeting of the semester. "But I hope they will demonstrate a positive step toward our commitment."
Clements spoke these words a day before 1,300 students graduated with academic degrees from the land grant university with a mission of service, teaching and research. Many of those students begin their transition to alumni remembering their final semester at the university stained with racial tensions.
The weekend before final exams, Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity hosted an off-campus party of white students smiling and posing for photographs while wearing blue and red bandanas, gestured to indicate gang signs and wore T-shirts with images of rappers and handcuffs. They called it a "Cripmas" party with no intention to harm; some black students called it hurtful to dress as thuggish gang members, a negative stereotype in the black community, something reinforced by popular culture.
This happened during a semester overlapping with protests and anger in many parts of the country related to accusations of police abuse and overreach leading to unarmed black men dead after police altercations in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, joined by other incidents in other parts of the country between police and blacks.
National tension seemed to intensify on a college campus, where students sympathetic to people harmed or killed by police held marches, demonstrations and protests. Others, generally white students, felt police did their job.
Clements met with the crowd of mostly black students and faculty the Sunday after the party, after smiling photos of white students dressed as gang members had made the rounds on social media. The university president sent out an email asking students to be respectful. Offended students ask for a stronger statement from the university leader.
He asked for a little more time. A week and a half later at the faculty meeting, Clements spent more than a third of his nine-minute speech focused on what he described as inappropriate, deeply disturbing and hurtful student actions.
"Clearly, positive change is needed," he said.
The university hired a chief diversity officer in 2008, Leon Wiles, who will work with Ameda Jacks, interim vice president of student affairs create three diversity efforts authorized by Clements: a President's Lecture Series on Leadership in Diversity; a monthly student luncheon dialogues intended to bring minority and majority students together for better communication and understanding; and a Diversity Council of on- and off-campus representatives.
Clements said he wants the new Council to keep actively work to make people of all backgrounds feel like tolerance and cultural understanding are genuine Clemson values.
University spokesman John Gouch today said Friday Clements was not available to speak with The Greenville News. Wiles also could not be reached for comment.
Some black students said prior to the semester ending they worried the Administration will try to forget about what happened this semester but would remain outspoken about their concerns.
A Greenville News review of reports from the Clemson University President's Commission on the Status of Black Faculty & Staff and analysis of data from the university's office of institutional research identified concerns and trends still unresolved.
The commission on the status of black faculty and staff began in 1998 after the university found a 20 percent drop in black staff from 1981 to 1998 compared to a 12 percent drop in white counterparts. A 2005 university survey found 37.6 percent of full-time black staff felt they couldn't succeed at the university. A third did not feel welcome at the university.
The university prepared report on the survey recommended a need to retain and increase the number of blacks in tenure-track positions and increase the number of black staff in top management positions. No similar follow up has been made public since the 2005 report.
One clear increase has occurred for black professionals at the university: full-time faculty increased 22 percent during the same period, reaching an all-time high this year of 44. White faculty showed few gains by increasing a single percent to 953.
Clements said this week he expects lots of discussion on campus about excellence in diversity and inclusiveness. The university will recognize a single person in each category of faculty, staff and student. He said the discussion is healthy for the academic environment.
"Clemson University has accomplished great things in the past," he said during the faculty meeting this week. "And I know we have an even brighter future ahead if we work together, if we are supportive and respect each other and if we provide a campus environment that allows everyone to succeed."