Last month the Clemson University Board of Trustees issued a set of recommendations for how the school should go about telling its history, noting, “Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsman.”
That’s true, and the Clemson story is worth telling. The university’s role in shaping South Carolina’s economic, social, educational and political future, in my view, should not be underestimated.
Clemson’s history, however, is more than just a name on a building. It is complicated, at times uncomfortable. Yet, we should not shy away from its history, but rather must do our best to learn from it. The recommendations set forth by the Board of Trustees are guided by this very intention. The recommendations call for telling our complete and full story through an updated and candid historical narrative—a narrative that encompasses the good along with the bad.
As an African-American resident of South Carolina for the past 35 years with 13 of those years as a Clemson University professor and executive director of the “Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models)” program, I am thoroughly convinced that no other institution is more intertwined with the very fabric of South Carolina than Clemson University. This underscores, in my mind, the importance of uncovering and telling Clemson’s history in its entirety.
With a fresh doctorate from UGA, I didn’t initially arrive in SC with my current view of Clemson University. Quite the contrary, my dissertation study included a sampling of Clemson department chairs’ attitudes and opinions toward Affirmative Action in hiring African American faculty. I determined from the feedback that Clemson University would not have been a place to bank my life’s work and professional career. Clemson quickly fell off my radar!
Almost twenty years later in 2000, Dr. Tom Parks, a white Clemson University Professor in Educational Leadership, reaches out to three private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) in South Carolina with an idea to collaborate on increasing the number of Black male elementary school teachers in the state. Among the three, he connects with me at Claflin University to help launch “Call Me MiSTER!” I became the program’s first full time Director at Clemson University in 2003. While apprehensive about departing Claflin for Clemson, I believed strongly that the future impact of the program would be predetermined by Clemson University’s commitment to it. Regardless of my personal determination and resolve about building the future success of the program, it simply would not have happened without the commitment of Clemson University’s staunch leadership by former President James Barker and the support of the Board of Trustees.
So simply telling the history of our past is not enough. Such efforts must be accompanied by actions to chart a better course for our future. The Call Me MISTER initiative—whose goal is to increase the pool of available teachers from a broader, more diverse background, particularly among the state’s lowest performing elementary schools—is one such example.
President Clements has shown that he is committed to creating a more inclusive campus. However, this takes time. Diligently raising awareness, looking for solutions and affecting change does not happen overnight. It is a process…not an event! President Clements and the Board of Trustees should have the opportunity to fulfill their commitment and we as the Clemson family should continue to ask questions and ensure progress is being made.
We may not be proud of every part of Clemson’s history, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen, erase or rewrite it. We can only learn from it and use it to create a future for Clemson of which we can be wholly proud.