Education

USC student protesters may have made history last week. Is more activism to come?

USC students protest presidential finalists. Here’s why

Some students at the University of South Carolina are criticizing the school for what they see as a lack of diversity in presidential finalists, especially because the finalists are all men.
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Some students at the University of South Carolina are criticizing the school for what they see as a lack of diversity in presidential finalists, especially because the finalists are all men.

Just a few days ago, it seemed all but certain the University of South Carolina would name a president on Friday.

But after a week of students, faculty and even political leaders calling for more diversity in the presidential finalists, roughly 100 students descended on the USC Alumni Center and successfully pressured the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees to reopen the search for presidential finalists.

“That’s the kind of stuff that goes down in history books,” said David Snyder, a USC faculty member who co-edited a book about student activism in the South. “This is the kind of stuff we’ll be reading about in 20 years.”

While it might be tempting to lump all of last week’s activism into one, homogenous group, those who participated in last week’s demonstrations vary by ideology and identity.

For example, the co-author of a letter read at forums for the four candidates calling for more women on the search committee refused to favor a candidate and skewed toward upperclassmen.

Contrast that to Friday’s protesters, who specifically opposed finalist Robert L. Caslen’s candidacy but favored William F. Tate. Those protesters were led by predominately underclassmen and students of color.

“A lot of people were alarmed at the decision that could have been made,” said freshman Darius York, who read aloud a letter during Friday’s protest that called for the board to select Tate over Caslen.

“I really do feel we went about (the protest) the right way,” York said. “It was my first time (protesting), but it may not be my last because I see the effectiveness.”

Around 800 people signed that letter, York said.

“Definitely I think going forward, this group will advocate for diversity of the board and things like that,” York said.

York co-authored the letter with Lyric Swinton, a junior studying sports and entertainment. Swinton, who led chants and spoke to protesters Friday, said this was her first real protest.

“I’m used to, honestly, fighting my battles in a conference room,” Swinton said. “Once you believe in something, you care about your university, you have to do something. You wake up one day and you’re an activist.”

While the groups overlapped on many issues — sophomore Lauryn Workman both read the gender equality letter at a public forum and led chants at Friday’s protest — there were also some differences.

One example, Megan Rigabar, a senior who co-authored the letter calling for the search committee to include more women, refused to take part in Friday’s protest because it singled out a candidate.

“I wanted to remain true to the words I read, and that was that we were not attacking a candidate,” Rigabar said.

While the activists appeared to have been effective in getting the board to about-face, it hasn’t come without criticism. One of those concerns is that many protesters criticized Caslen for his comments about sexual assault, which may have been taken out of context.

Ethan Magnuson, the suit-clad College Democrat and feminist firebrand from Friday’s protest, broke ranks with other protesters, saying he thought Caslen had a respectable record on handling sexual assault. But Magnuson opposed Caslen’s candidacy because of the general’s involvement in the Iraq War, his lack of a record on environmental sustainability and the fact that Caslen does not possess a doctorate degree, Magnuson said.

The board’s decision to reverse course on choosing a candidate has added “wind in our sails,” Magnuson said.

“Obviously, there’s about to be a sort of quiet period because we’re coming up on the summer,” Magnuson said. “Next semester is going to be another round of activism.”

Several student activists told The State this was the first time they had seen a large number of students successfully organizing for a social or political cause. However, USC has a rich history of political involvement on campus, ranging from Vietnam War protests to pro-Barry Goldwater demonstrations, said Jon Hale, a USC education professor who has written several books about student activism in the South.

“I’m not surprised by the student activism because this campus has a history of protest going back to desegregation,” Hale said. “The history of higher education in America is one of politics and protest. USC is no exception.”

What separates this movement from previous activism on USC’s campus is the use of social media, the focus on gender representation and the involvement of Generation Z, Hale said.

“They were going to school during Parkland and March for Our Lives,” Hale said. “I think students are seeing themselves as agents of change.”

The March for Our Lives followed the shooting deaths of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. The march, led mostly by students, pushed for an end to gun violence and school shootings.

According to The State’s archives, USC students have made headlines for protesting former President George W. Bush being the school’s commencement speaker in 2003. They stood in solidarity with Chinese students killed in the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre. Perhaps the most disruptive protest on USC’s campus in recent history was in 1970 when the National Guardsmen, SLED agents and S.C. Highway Patrol broke up protests at the USC student union that resulted in the arrest of 31 USC students, according to The State’s archives.

As recently as 2015, around 150 USC students walked out of class to demand the university increase its commitment to diversity, according to a previous article from The State.

“This movement really came from the students,” said Rebeca Stern, a USC English professor who helped disseminate the gender equality letter last week. “I was grateful for them for organizing... because there was a lot of grumbling when the finalists were announced.”

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