Presidential Commission re-examines university’s complex history
Building name changes, expanded historical context on the agenda
By Chris Horn, email@example.com, 803-777-3687
When President Bob Caslen established the Presidential Commission on University History last year, he tasked it with leading a research effort “into the complex history of the university.”
That task is every bit as challenging as one might expect for an institution whose nearly 220-year history was shaped first by the antebellum South, desegregation during Reconstruction, then decades of state-sponsored racial segregation. The commission is part of an effort to ensure that campus is a welcoming place for all, and it comes at a time when universities and other institutions throughout the country are facing similar questions about how to confront their past.
In establishing the commission, Caslen further called for examining and addressing the historic context of the university, from evaluating the names of many university buildings to broadening acknowledgement of key groups and individuals who have contributed to the university over time. That effort is complicated by the state Heritage Act, which prohibits public entities from removing memorials or renaming buildings without legislative approval. Nonetheless, the commission is proceeding with its work, with each member serving on one or more of three committees focused on education, history and building/place names on campus.
We welcome people to send emails or submit information on our website through a form there, and there will be opportunities for people to talk with us at public forms. We welcome that kind of public input.
Elizabeth West, university archivist and co-chair of the Presidential Commission on University History
One of the commission’s tasks — to scrutinize the backgrounds of individuals for whom campus buildings are named — resulted in a recommendation this past June to remove the name of J. Marion Sims from one of the residence halls on the Women’s Quad, a recommendation endorsed by President Caslen and the Board of Trustees. Student groups have also called for renaming the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center and the Thomas Cooper Library.
The commission, whose members include university faculty, staff and students and members of the community, is reviewing the history of many more campus building namesakes and is charged with recommending to the Board of Trustees the names “of prominent African-American South Carolinians who could be considered for honorific naming of university buildings in the near future.”
The commission’s recommendations will likely include but won’t be limited to Richard T. Greener, the university’s first black faculty member (whose statue, pictured at top of page, was installed on campus in 2018); Ernest Finney, the S.C. Supreme Court’s first black justice; and the three students who desegregated the university in 1963, Robert Anderson, James Solomon and Henrie Monteith Treadwell.
A subcommittee of the commission is looking at criteria developed at other universities that have begun the process of renaming some of their own campus buildings.
“And all of that is a big task, but we also are charged with making recommendations on how to provide a more diverse and inclusive history of the university, based on that research,” says Elizabeth West, the university archivist and one of three commission co-chairs with history professor Val Littlefield and president emeritus Harris Pastides.
“That's a more long-term part of our work as we do research and discuss various educational options. One idea would be to bring that information into different aspects of the university's curricula — University 101 is an obvious choice — and there could be walking tour apps and similar platforms to help get that information out there. We’d also like to see ideas that emphasize the creative arts.”
A number of historical sources about the university are available, West says, including various websites, but there is no central clearinghouse to find all of the information. “There’s a site on the Richard T. Greener statue, for example, but how do you find that unless you know to search for Greener?” she added.
In the coming weeks, the commission anticipates holding public forums in preparation for an interim report by the end of the fall semester with more in-depth coming in the spring.
“We know the university community, especially students, want to see progress, and we are working diligently toward that end,” West says. “But we also want to make sure that we are examining the appropriate historical texts and contemporary texts on individuals so that we’re getting as accurate a view as possible of the pros and cons and fuller lives and beliefs of these individuals.”
West says the South Carolina Heritage Act, which places restrictions on renaming of historical buildings, will not be a consideration in the commission’s research and eventual recommendations.
“We welcome people to send emails or submit information on our website through a form there, and there will be opportunities for people to talk with us at public forms. We welcome that kind of public input.”
Virtual public forums are scheduled for Oct. 13, 4-6 p.m., and Oct. 15, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
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