USC students protest lack of diversity on campus
A group of mostly black University of South Carolina students gathered Monday — outside a theater named after a former president of the college who defended slavery — to begin a march to tell the current president that they want more attention paid to diversity on campus.
Dressed in black, the protestors marched silently two-by-two, locked in arms from the Longstreet Theatre through the Horseshoe to USC’s administration building. There, they presented 12 demands to three university administrators.
“The future of USC is in your hands,” said Clarie Randall, a biology/psychology major from Greenville as she handed the list to administrators.
The group, known as USC 2020 Vision, asked when school leaders would meet their demands, including expanded minority student and faculty recruitment efforts.
USC provost Joan Gabel, standing next to chief diversity officer John Dozier and Student Affairs vice president Dennis Pruitt, said administrators would examine the demands. They offered no timetable. But, they said, some of the demands are being met in programs already adopted by the college.
“Change may not necessarily happen right around the corner,” Dozier said.
The peaceful demonstration, which called for students to walk out of classes, was one of the largest protests on the campus of South Carolina’s flagship university in recent years.
The protests follows efforts this year at Clemson University, led by black students, to change the name of that school’s most prominent building, Tillman Hall, named after an avowed segregationist. The USC demonstration also came a week after protests by African-American students at the University of Missouri led that school’s president to step down.
USC 2020 Vision organizers said the protest Monday was planned for months. They planned to demonstrate in January or February but moved up the event after the Missouri protest, said Nona Henderson, a business major from Greenville and spokeswoman for USC 2020 Vision.
“We’re just taking our chance with it because now is the best time,” she said.
Turnout for the the protest could have been larger, organizers said, but they said they did not want to reveal their plans too far in advance. Word of the protest started spreading late Sunday.
During their meeting with administrators, Gabel offered to take representatives of the protestors inside the administration building to speak on the phone with USC president Harris Pastides, who is attending a conference in Indianapolis. Protest leaders declined, saying they wanted conversations to remain public.
Administrators spent about a half-hour taking questions and listening to complaints from the students about threats against minorities, the loss of minority faculty members and minority student recruitment.
Aaron Greene, a senior majoring in public relations from Orangeburg, said the University of Wisconsin works with elementary-school-age minority students to encourage diversity.
“Why are you closing this door?” he asked administrators. “We need a proactive administration to attack these issues.”
Spokeswomen for the protest group said several online attacks against African-American students have made them feel unsafe on campus but offered few specifics beyond citing comments on social media. After the protest, a spokeswoman for the protestors, Morgan Lewis, mentioned remarks posted on the social media app Yik Yak that allows anonymous comments.
Administrators suggested protestors file complaints about discriminatory incidents with an online form that the university provides.
USC 2020 Vision also asked that a town-hall meeting with Pastides to discuss diversity issues be held before the end of the fall semester, a request administrators said they would consider.
Protestors did not voice any complaints about Pastides. But their list of demands included called for independent investigations of three administrators.
The list of demands did not say why the three should be investigated. However, after the protest, Lewis, a junior from Blythewood, said the administrators have failed to foster diversity on campus.
USC 2020 Vision also demanded:
▪ Acknowledgment USC was built by slave labor during tours and on markers on campus
▪ Gender-neutral housing and restrooms, and comprehensive health and mental-health care for transgender students
▪ More money for the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs
▪ Renaming the Office of Student Disability Services to the Office of Accessibility and Accommodation Services
▪ Faculty and staff receive mandatory diversity training
Henderson said the school fails to back up its claims on diversity.
About 10.5 percent of USC’s student population is African American, ranking ninth-highest among the state’s 12 four-year colleges in the fall of 2014, according to the latest state data available. At 4.6 percent last year, USC ranked fourth among four-year schools in the number of full-time African-American faculty.
Both figures are well below the state’s African-American population, which is 28 percent.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel at home. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel comfortable,” Henderson said. “We’re having all these conversations that are full of talk and no action.”
USC said Monday that all new staffers have diversity training conducted by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. The university said also that it does have uni-sex restrooms on campus and addresses housing on a student-by-student basis.
USC leaders said they respect the protestors’ efforts to bring change.
“Our president ... hears you loud and clear and is engaged with you,” said Gabel, who started at USC in the fall after spending five years at the University of Missouri. “He affirms your right to be heard as does all the administration.”
Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday that she hopes protestors continue to air their grievances calmly.
“It’s OK for people to be frustrated,” Haley said. “The important part is that ... there has got to be listening on both sides. I would expect USC officials to do that, and they should address these students in a way that they feel good. And, if there is action to be taken, that action is taken.”
Staff reporters Harrison Cahill and Cassie Cope contributed
Diversity at USC
The percentage of African-American students and full-time faculty at the University of South Carolina and all four-year S.C. colleges statewide in 2014.
All SC four-year colleges
SOURCE: Analysis of S.C. Commission on Higher Education data