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Op-ed: USC’s presidential finalists reflect those in power in SC

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.

When the membership of the search committee for a new president of the University of South Carolina was announced in the fall, many faculty members noticed — and decried — the lack of gender diversity on the committee. Of the 11 members, two were women. Some predicted, correctly as it turns out, that all of the candidates would be men. Students have raised alarm bells over this, outraged that the search committee’s 11 semifinalists did not include a single qualified woman.

That this was the outcome, and that students are upset, is not surprising. While the students are right to speak up and will hopefully have some impact on this search, the solution requires more fundamental changes. Sometimes protests work. In 1988 when Gallaudet appointed a new president, the campus erupted because students demanded to have the first deaf president in the university’s 124-year history. Within a week the new president resigned and a deaf president was appointed.

A lasting solution to the problem is simple, but far from easy. The answer is in who we elect to represent us as South Carolinians.

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There are 16 members of the Board of Trustees who are elected by the General Assembly. Currently, 14 are men and two are women, not quite 13%. Currently, 27 of 170 legislators in the General Assembly are women, just under 16%.

Simply put, we are more likely to know and understand those who look, believe, and behave like we do. This applies to race, gender, physical ability, socioeconomic status, religion, and so much more. Different backgrounds produce different life experiences, which is why we gravitate to those like us and also why finding ourselves among others different from us is so important. It is not always out of malice that we associate with those like us; it is human nature. However, it can become problematic because a privileged group can easily reproduce and extend its power to the detriment of others, as has happened so often in human history.

If, in the future, we wish for a more representative pool of candidates we will need a more representative Board of Trustees, the body that is responsible for appointing the search committee and that has final authority on the hiring decision. And a more representative Board is more likely to come from a more representative General Assembly.

We have a helpful lesson from history. In 1868 the South Carolina Constitution was re-written to allow for universal (male) suffrage, regardless of race. In every election during Reconstruction, black men gained political offices, and for a time they held the majority in the General Assembly. In turn, three of the five trustees at the University were black men and that Board desegregated the campus, the only public institution in the South to integrate during that time. In 1873 the first black student enrolled. A normal school for training teachers, mostly black women, was established on campus. The Board also appointed Richard T. Greener as professor, the first black graduate of Harvard and the only black professor at a university in the South. He was recommended by a new board member who had escaped slavery as a child. For a brief time — from 1873 to 1877 — the majority of students at the University of South Carolina were black, as were the majority of citizens of the state. This all ended with the elections that brought a halt to Reconstruction. African American students and professors would not return to campus until the 1960s.

In short, who we elect to represent us matters.

Christian K. Anderson is associate professor of Educational Leadership & Policies where he focuses on the history of universities. The views here are his own.
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