The Presidential Commission on University History
A conversation with the three co-chairs of the commission tasked with broadening and illuminating the history of the institution.
By Communications and Public Affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
In the fourth episode of "State of the University with Bob Caslen," the president and host Sally McKay talk with the three co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on University History.
Sally McKay: Welcome to State of the University with Bob Caslen, I'm Sally McKay, your host, and each month, President Caslen and I invite you to an exclusive conversation with university students, faculty and staff who are working toward the president's bold vision for the state's flagship institution of higher education president. President Caslen, hello. How are you doing?
Bob Caslen: How are you doing, Sally, it's great to be with you. Thank you.
Sally McKay: Great to be with you, as always, President Caslen. Today we discuss university history, an emotional subject that has flooded conversations on social media, on campus and in the community, especially during a time when our nation is politically divided and seemingly unwilling to reckon with its racist past. We welcome two distinguished guests to this conversation, and neither is a stranger to the University of South Carolina.
Sally McKay: Val Littlefield is an associate professor of history who's areas of specialization are African-American history, African-American education and African-American women. Elizabeth West is the university archivist at the South Caroliniana Library. She is the author of several books on the university's history, including "On the Horseshoe, A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina." Welcome to you both.
Val Littlefield, Elizbabeth West: Thanks. Thank you, Sally. Great to be here.
Sally McKay: Great to have this conversation with you. We could honestly have each of you on separate episodes of State of the University and still not have enough time to talk with you about all of your exciting and important work. But today you are here as two of the three co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on University History. And I should point out the third co-chair Harris Pastides could not join us for this portion of the conversation, but you'll hear from him later in this episode. He, of course, served as the university's 28th president from 2008 to 2019. Well, President Caslen, let's let's get started with this important conversation. The commission was your first order of business as president. Tell us about that.
Bob Caslen: It was for sure, because it was the very first thing I signed so soon as I became the president, I remember walking into my office and the first document that greeted me was the statement about the president's commission on University History. And I didn't know anything about it at the time. When I started looking into it, I said, what's all this about? And they said, this is something that was thought of by Harris himself. And he had consulted with the board. And this is something that they felt they needed to address. Harris did not get a chance to actually sign it into authority was passed to me. And I said I eagerly would love to do this because this is, the little I know the South Carolina history coming on board, I knew that it was a rich history that had great controversy and it really needed to be addressed.
Bob Caslen: When I was a president up at West Point, we had our own challenges up there with Confederate naming because a lot of the Confederate generals were West Point graduates. And so there was a number of issues that were named after Confederate generals. And we were tied strictly with the army on how the army was dealing with Confederate naming across all of its installations. That was a couple of years ago. But now you can see some of the progress that that's being made over there and we hope to make the same progress here. So the very first document I signed was this document right here in August of 2019. The President's Commission on University History was put in place. From there it really had a couple of purposes. One is to study the history and to record it. And then another huge purpose is to tell the history so that we can tell the history through various means and avenues and modes. For the buildings that were part of the history, it was important to understand who the building was named after and what was the history of that person, and then what was the history behind the naming of the building so that we can understand both of them as well.
Bob Caslen: What emerges out of all of this is, therefore, what are the ones that based on today's and our values and the values that we aspire to in our Carolinian Creed here at this institution the values of our model. What are the what are the what are the buildings that may be of controversy? And then how do you deal if you have a building that is controversial, should it be renamed? What's the process you go through and all that sort of thing? So the commission would embrace all of that. Some buildings had no names and they had names like East or West or something like that. And maybe, perhaps we can put a name to that building. So the commission would also look at what's the building that deserves a name and what is the most deserving of the names that are out there. So a lot of potential, a lot of excitement, a lot of controversy. But I felt that we had the right program to put it all together. Now, who is going to be in charge of it? You know, so what we found was the most logical person that can really be in charge of is probably someone of great authority who had some of the greatest knowledge with respect to the buildings, to the history. And that was Harris Pastides himself was coming on and staying on as emeritus, staying right here on the campus, living here. I thought it was a great idea that he would be our principal co-chair. And then Val and Elizabeth were also co-chairs. So we were glad to have them on based on their background and how important their background was, their viewpoints in this effort. So it was launched, you know, what, about 18, 19 months ago. And we're very anxious, as you know, based on some of the social justice issues that have developed over the last year to get some of these things resolved.
Sally McKay: Absolutely, and to pick up a little bit on where you've already taken us, President Caslen, Elizabeth, Val, the commission's charges to examine and address historic context here at the University of South Carolina. Is it fair to say that your work really is as much about addressing history that is not represented on our campus as much as or in addition to the history that is represented?
Val Littlefield: I would say yes. It is very much looking at underrepresented groups, underrepresented individuals, and making sure that their experiences are part of the larger history of the University of South Carolina. And so we have been diligently trying to research. We have three subcommittees and that has worked quite well. We have a history subcommittee, we have a communications subcommittee, and we have names and landscape subcommittee. And the groups have been working really, really hard to uncover unnamed underrepresented groups and people,
Elizabeth West: Absolutely, and there are so many stories, history is very messy, it's very complicated, complex, and so you really don't get that full understanding of it if you have essential pieces missing, like from a jigsaw puzzle or I like to use the to refer to it as a tapestry. You have all of these different colored threads woven in to form this larger picture. And if you're missing some of them, then you don't get that full idea of what happened and who contributed and, you know, really what went on in all these 200 plus years at the university.
Sally McKay: Definitely. And we'll certainly talk about about buildings. It's important to note, though, that this is not the president's commission on building names. It includes that. It's more than that. And I know I've heard out in about a little bit sometimes it's called the building commission. I'm sure you all have heard that, too. Well, let's go there, though, for a moment. Last June, the commission recommended that the name Sims and we should note, that's the name of J. Marion Sims, known as the father of modern gynecology. He was a student here and later found that he experimented on slave women. It was recommended by the commission that Sims be removed from the residence hall on the women's quad here on Greene Street. Will the commission recommend a new name specifically for this residence hall? And can we expect other buildings to be addressed? And I think we have to include in this conversation the Strom Thurmond Fitness and Wellness Center.
Val Littlefield: We will not recommend a specific name for any building. We will submit names, and that will be up to the president and the board of trustees to decide which building gets what name. When you think about, you know, when you think about Sims, that is, you know, and other buildings, those are emotional tugs because as a historian, you are thinking about the lives of people whose voices we didn't recognize. We recognize Sims but we did not recognize those women who made it possible for him to become the father of modern gynecology.
Sally McKay: Absolutely. Elizabeth, anything to add to that?
Elizabeth West: it's also very emotional for people who live in these buildings and as they understand who that person is that the building is named for, and so we understand also the people who attended in years prior are fond of their memories living on campus in a particular dormitory, no matter what the name is. And so there's that emotional play to that that we certainly understand. And it makes it a difficult process to really get into and examine all of this history and make these kinds of recommendations. So that's why we want to proceed very carefully and meticulously in making those kinds of recommendations.
Sally McKay: It's an interesting point you're bringing up. And President Caslen, I know you have heard a lot from emotional sides of this process, but the emotional tug from someone who maybe decades and decades ago lived in in a building like Sims, I know my late mother in law did. And I remember being a student here and just knowing it as Sims and not thinking a whole lot about it. But but that there is there is the emotion on both sides. And President Caslen, you hear it all the time.
Bob Caslen: Yeah, well, I was particularly moved by Sims and the whole story and women that would be living in that student residence, knowing that they were walking into a building that was named after someone who did experiments on slave women. Just imagine what they thought. So the reason I was moved is because we had a similar situation at West Point. We have a student residence at West Point named after Robert E. Lee. And when I was the president, there were three African-American students came to see me on my open door policy and they said, 'Sir, you need to understand what we feel every time we walk into this, into our we call them barracks up there into this barracks.' And as I was listening to them and understanding their genuine feelings of what they were going through, just walking into a building that we forced them to be into, a building that was named after someone that wanted to perpetuate slavery.
Bob Caslen: And, you know, so why do we do that? You know, and we just to be clear, you know, at West Point on the names of buildings was tied to the army. So any renaming that we had to do was similar to what's what's tied with us here at this university with the General Assembly and the Heritage Act, we were tied to what the greater Army was required to do or what they would allow us to do. But to listen to students concerns about walking into a building that's named with that type of a heritage and that type of approach that what their lifelong heritages and their legacy. You know, just doesn't make sense.
Sally McKay: Yes, definitely. It's almost a cruel irony in so many ways. You mentioned the Heritage Act, President Caslen, let's let's go there for a moment. I think your comparison is really spot on about West Point. So you couldn't make decisions there in a vacuum because we're talking about the United States Army when we talk about West Point. And similarly here, we, too, cannot make decisions in a vacuum without the General Assembly, the South Carolina legislature, being involved. And that Heritage Act is very specific about what it would take if one were to go about renaming. Elizabeth or can you speak to that a little bit?
Elizabeth West: Well, with the Heritage Act, the requirement that the legislature has to make that decision on whether to remove a name, you know, that is something that causes, you know, difficulty in the process, but really for the commission our goal, our work is to make the recommendations without, you know, consideration of the Heritage Act looming over them. You know, we will make our recommendations and provide them to President Caslen. And then, of course, they have to go to the board of trustees again. So there is a lot of frustration that we've heard from people who speak about the Heritage Act and in their comments to us about the different names on the buildings. And it's unfortunate that it's not something that we can really address in the process of our work here. And so we hope people will understand that, you know, this is our step in that process. And then it's the first step. And there is still a path, longer path to go on for that.
Sally McKay: And I think it's actually interesting and maybe possibly freeing for the commission. I mean, knowing that if you operate with that looming on on your shoulders, it could dissuade you a little bit. You're doing the work you need to do and then we proceed to step two. So I'm interested in that as well.
Val Littlefield: It is on the one hand, yes, it's it's still the elephant in the room, but it does free us up to just get done what we need to get done. I'm glad we didn't get that elephant that that's the one we have to usher out of the room. We have enough to do without dealing with that.
Sally McKay: We got we got some elephants. Yeah, well, let's talk about another area that that has just really surfaced publicly recently. And that is the process itself. And the time that it takes. This process of the commission's work is extremely deliberate. I think that's the phrase I came up with. It is meticulous work. Some have really expressed frustration recently with the pace of the work. And you issued a statement not long ago addressing an open letter that was written by our student body president Issy Rushton and student body vice president Hannah White, both members of the commission as student leaders and both frustrated that more hasn't been accomplished since the commission's creation. I mean, we can certainly understand frustration, but you all then you had to address that comment. How did you go about it?
Val Littlefield: As a team. We talked about it with each other and with communications. We made a decision to to address it. That was a no brainer. And we will be meeting with the students because I understand that, we all understand their frustration. If I could wave a magic wand and make changes immediately, I would and anyone on the team would as well. That's not going to happen. But I do understand their frustration about pace because we are being deliberate. And there's a reason to be deliberate, because when you present a document, you want to make sure you've done everything you can possibly do to make your case. And that's what we're going to do. And so we will have a conversation about that and the comparisons that are made between the University of Virginia and UNC. They have been working on this for five to 10 years. We've talked to those commissions. We know how long. So they're now seeing the fruits of their labor. And so, you know, one of the things will urge them is, you know, keep pushing. I don't have a problem with people pushing. I think we need that. We need that passion. They're a lot younger than we are. We need that passion. So keep pushing. And so that's that's what we're going to do.
Sally McKay: And, you know, looking at those other universities and colleges and institutions, frankly, I mean, we are certainly not the only institution grappling with this difficult work, but there's a little piece of history right there. I mean, the work that UVA has done, the work that Chapel Hill has done, that's recent history that started a while back. So it does put it in perspective. And I realize that's just a microcosm for the work that you are doing with every single name, every single aspect of this important university history that we have to consider.
Elizabeth West: Right. And and with our commission, we are looking at that entire length of history of the university and dozens and dozens of building names. And so the majority, I believe, of the other institutions that have tackled this have focused specifically on the impact and connection of slavery with their institutions. And so that's taken them several years. And then they're moving on in a different way than this commission, which is is already looking at that whole length of time. So, you know, it is a bit different in how we're approaching and in the lengthier time frame that we're having to examine.
Sally McKay: That's right. And President Caslen, probably a good moment to point out. I mean, that long brush of our history began, and I know the date actually, on December 19th, 1801, when the South Carolina legislature chartered South Carolina College. And, yeah, it would be four more years, I believe it was January 10th, 1805, we opened with the one building that we know now as Rutledge College. And it grew from there. So we're talking about more than 200 years, President Caslen, that maybe other institutions have been dealing with their history in a different way.
Bob Caslen: Well, I know and this is the whole purpose is to study that history and not only to study and understand it, but to tell the story, and I think that's important. So the recommendations are going to come out. Go back to what you said about the Heritage Act and the recommendations that come out before that will that will come out of the commission will come to me as the president, since the president had formed the commission. And then I take those recommendations and I have a choice to either act, well, what I can act on or send them up to the board and enroute to the General Assembly in accordance with the Heritage Act. So the Heritage Act, as you know, requires a General Assembly and a majority of both houses to approve the name change. But it's going to be the court of public opinion on the university and the board and the General Assembly on how they handle each one of these recommendations. And everybody will be watching very closely. So definitely we're looking forward to it.
Sally McKay: Yeah, and important that we're that we're having this conversation to to make sure that we're having these important chats about about what's about to happen as a really important step one. Let me go back with that in mind and knowing where we are in the process, this report, this writing that we've mentioned now a couple of times, this is a report, Elizabeth and Val, that you will submit at the end of your process to the president, as he just said. Will we get to see it, we in the public and how will we do that? What can we expect to see in it? Not word for word, but maybe in the way that it's organized.
Val Littlefield: Yes, you will get to see it, it's two parts, we will do an interim report within the next few weeks and then we'll we'll have a final report. And we have not set the deadline for the final report yet. It may be sooner rather than later. But one of the things that we want to do in the interim report is to inform the president of all the things we have been doing and all the information that we have uncovered so far and some recommendations. We do have some recommendations for the future in the interim report. The final report will be much more detailed. It will include up until the very end of what we've done, as well as recommendations to sustain the work that the commission has started.
Sally McKay: Very good, and that will be posted maybe on on a website. I know there's a website, a piece of this also that you all will be working on.
Elizabeth West: Yes, we have the commission website and putting our minutes and putting the meeting videos on there so the reports will go on there as well. And the website is currently under development as a much more expanded structure, which will include a lot of the work of the University History Subcommittee in exploring underrepresented groups, different persons, other categories in the university history to really have a sort of a one stop place on the university history where people can link to other existing content, new content and explore the university history that way. So it may also include a timeline, information on the buildings, building names and, you know, some other potential projects that have been discussed with the subcommittee, with the commission. So beyond the recommendations on the renaming, we'll have all these other recommendations on these kinds of projects, perhaps for apps for a walking tour or something like that of the campus, exhibits or other sorts of events or projects that we can recommend as ways to continue putting that history out there, studying it and getting it out to the university community and beyond.
Sally McKay: Wonderful. And this really is sounds like — it strikes me that we're adding such an important lens. I mean, Elizabeth, you alone, you've written books about about the university's history. We mentioned one at the top of the show about the historic campus. But this particular lens and this methodical work that the commission is doing is bringing this new and old, yet new, perspective to a history that is more than 220 years old and we've been talking about for a long time, just maybe in a different way. Let me go just to the commission itself for a moment. This is a large group of people on this important commission and it's university people, it's members of the community, the greater community. You mentioned several subcommittees that you have. And I'm curious about how you keep this organized. I mean, I know we've all been in meetings where there's more than a couple of people at a table and you're trying to edit something and just how, I'll say it, frustrating that can be. So I'm curious about the method and how you do what you do.
Val Littlefield: Well, thank goodness we have committee members who are civil to each other. We disagree on a lot of times, but. It's loud conversations and cross each other sometimes, but we get our points across and we hear each other. I think most importantly, we hear each other and what we often remind each other, the historians in the group, there are several of us, is that history doesn't change. But the writing of history changes with new information it has to change. And so something someone new 10 years ago, somebody comes along 10 years later and discovers another document that completely changes or the impact of the previous document. And so it's extremely important to keep in mind that history doesn't change. But the writing of it has to change.
Sally McKay: Definitely. And I like the sound of that civility. It sounds like a very honest conversation, if not debate sometime. It gets emotional for sure. But and I'm sure you probably walk away from meetings with thinking about things maybe a little bit differently or with new questions. Has it changed each of you in different ways? Just in the way you approach these conversations.
Val Littlefield: Hasn't changed me in the way I approach conversations. I've always been very open to conversations because I think that's the way you learn. And I think learning is lifelong. So when I stop, I'll be shuffling off the mortal coil, shall we say. But what has changed me, I would argue, I've learned different things from different people. And so it's been the relationships formed with the different people on the group that I had not had relationships before.
Sally McKay: Definitely. Elizabeth?
Elizabeth West: Yeah, I would echo that because I think by virtue of our our work that we are used to having those kinds of civil discussions about difficult topics. But it is the interaction with, again, new colleagues and hearing those different perspectives and different approaches to things that has really been very beneficial and interesting and frustrating at times, you know, as we all work towards this. But it's been a really challenging but an exceptionally worthwhile experience.
Sally McKay: And our motto: "Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel." You know, in so many ways, it sounds like you are working with university history and humanizing it from a new perspective, from maybe some of the humans who haven't been represented in the history of our great university. President Caslen?
Bob Caslen: You know, I like what Val talked about, about, you know, our history doesn't change, but those who write about it changes. You know, one of the criticisms of doing this project is that you're revising history, you know, you're revisionist. So you know, you may be a revisionist, but, I know history hasn't changed, so you're not revising history, but there's a nugget out there that occurred that you were not previously, that you didn't know. Now you do. And then you talk to another person and you understand how the history has affected them that you didn't previously know. You know, so you get together in these groups and have these open, candid discussions. And it's really a great opportunity to understand and to listen. And then out of that understanding and listening, you really create empathy in positions and ideas that you previously hadn't. And then that really starts to have an impact on you about what actually has occurred, how you view the history now as compared to how you viewed the history before these conversations. So these open, candid discussions are important because it really enables us to understand. And then once we understand, then we create empathy and once we create empathy, then it's the ideal time to come together, to move forward, and that's ideally what we want to do. We're all about dealing with this issue and dealing with this challenge so that we together can move forward, not at the expense of one over the other, but moving forward together.
Sally McKay: Yes. Yes. You know, I'm thinking if in 100 years from now someone is writing the history of the State of the University with Bob Caslen podcast, but their research was only through the lens of me and didn't get the lens of the president or didn't get one of your lenses on the history of this podcast as it related to you, we wouldn't have the full story. The history is the same. We had the podcast. I mean, I think if we can create comparisons that aren't so emotionally charged, we understand what you're saying, all of you, about we're not changing the history — we're uncovering and bring in different different sets of eyes to it. Hmm. Well, I'd like to leave our listeners with, from each of you, your hopes for the outcome of this important work. And I mean, just beyond what's on paper, because we're going to get something on paper thanks to your hard work and who knows where that's going to go from there. But at a higher level, what hopes do you do you have?
Elizabeth West: I hope that people will really gain an appreciation for, as President Caslen said, that empathy, the different viewpoints and really how people live with aspects of history. I hope that students who've been very active in this process, but future students will have access to this kind of information that makes them gain a greater appreciation of the other students and faculty and staff that have come before them in the formation and development of the university and generally in understanding that as a whole, that history is still very much alive and very much has an impact on our day to day lives. And so that greater awareness, I think, is something that is what I'm I'm really hopeful for. And as we finish this work and it has its legacy.
Val Littlefield: Well, I am hoping that it continues in whatever format it needs to continue in and that it evolves over time. As a historian, I am hoping that more students will fall in love with history and that they will work at making sure that we document everyone that we possibly can so that it's not as hard for the future generation, as it is, as it has been for us.
Sally McKay: President Caslen, I'll let you have the the last thoughts here.
Bob Caslen: Well, you know, I'm kind of a product of my background. So, you know, having grown up in the military, the military is very rich in history and having been with some organizations and units that had some really rich historical backgrounds, we would get together and study the history of the units that we were assigned to in that study caused us to learn and understand, but it also inspired us. It motivated us. And so that was the benefit of understanding history. The rich history of the University of South Carolina is so rich that those who study it and begin to understand what all took place, the good and the bad, the goodness and the ugliness, can't help but be inspired. And then they have an opportunity now to address some of these issues that were of the past. And then how how do we collectively go forward together. So, you know, this is a history project that I think has got great benefit for all of us. The one thing I really like of this commission more than anything is the opportunity to tell our history, not only to study it and then to act on certain things that are not very, you know, namings and stuff like that. But the really goodness of this is the opportunity to tell our history and to tell it to to large groups and large organizations, not only our own internal constituents, our students and faculty, but every single person who comes here and visits. So they understand the rich history of South Carolina and the impact this university has played on the state in the nation over many years.
Sally McKay: A few days after my conversation with Val and Elizabeth and President Caslen, I was able to catch up with Harris Pastides, who was unable to join us earlier because of being caught in some bad winter weather but for all the right reasons. He was traveling in the northeast part of the country to be with his brand new grandson. And so Harris and I continued the conversation about the commission's important work.
Sally McKay: Harris, when I spoke with President Caslen and your co-chairs, Elizabeth and Val, we talked about this presidential commission on university history being the first order of business that President Caslen tended to when he became president of the university. It's your work, though, that actually got the commission formed before President Caslen signed it into official existence. Can you talk about the formation in your mind and in your work of this important commission?
Harris Pastides: Well, sure, and thank you, Sally, during my, during my last year in the presidency, our Diversity and Inclusion Committee, chaired by Professor David Snyder, looked around and saw that other universities were embarking on substantive reviews of university history. And in light of the social justice movement that was taking shape and growing and most of the universities who were undertaking this appointed a commission. And so they gave me that recommendation. I knew fairly quickly that the work of a commission would have to transcend presidencies, and therefore I didn't want to saddle or make a decision for my successor by just saying, sure, why don't we just start and the new president we'll tell him about it or her about it. And when President Caslen came aboard and I told him, in fact, at our first what I'll call a business meeting of several things that were important for him to know about, he didn't flinch and didn't delay, he said, well, we're going to do that. And in the end, the oft used humorous way of note, no good deed goes unpunished. He said, 'I'd like you to be on that and serve in an important role on the commission,' so that that's how that transference happened and the commission got underway immediately after that.
Sally McKay: I like that. Of course, he wanted you to be part of that, the work of the commission and you had been very much involved, your leadership, with additive history at the university when you were president. And I'm thinking specifically about the plaques that are now on the horseshoe, noting where slave quarters were. I'm thinking also about the statue of Richard Greener that stands so tall and magnificently between the Russell House and the Thomas Cooper Library. So, that work I know had to be meaning for you and in many ways lay some groundwork for where we are now.
Harris Pastides: Yes, Salley, they were also difficult, to be frank with you, as perhaps some of the recommendations from the commission may be difficult because there are people on all sides of every issue, and these are extremely critical issues that tug at the very roots of our country and of our state and of our university. If you look at the Horseshoe plaques, I had a lot of advice that said, 'Don't put them there. This is where visitors come and get to know the university, especially if they're considering attending here and their families and they're coming from other parts of the country. And the last thing they need to be reminded about is slavery or the enslaved people who built the campus.' Richard T Greener, in a different way, there was not a lot of money to get the beautiful statue built. And on top of that, we identified the most prominent pedestrian walkway in the whole university because we track where students in particular walk and between their student center and the library. But having said that, it was time I felt for a reckoning, not an apology, not in defensiveness, but a reckoning of who we were, because ] that's a better way to identify who we are and who we wish to be. So those are — when people ask me about the things I am particularly proud of and there are quite a few things and buildings and athletic prominence and all that — I look at the the markers on the Horseshoe and the Greener statue is among the things that I take most comfort in knowing I had a small hand in.
Sally McKay: Definitely, and you mentioned both sides, and this is a very emotional process, any time we're working on reckoning with an extremely complicated and often devastating past, we have many people in the country, not just our state, but who really seem unwilling to reckon with our racist past. I'm interested in one of the processes of the commission. Val and Elizabeth talked a bit about the formation of the commission and the different committees and the leadership there. I'm interested in the open forums that have taken place over the last many months. There have been a few of them. And you and the commission, the leadership, invited members of the public to join and they were virtual meetings, of course, because we're in a time where we couldn't gather all in one room. But you listen to people bring both sides of the idea of renaming buildings. And there was particular emotion around an open forum around the Strom Thurmond Fitness and Wellness Center. So can you talk a little bit about the importance of that process of having open forums? And I'm curious as to whether there will be more.
Harris Pastides: Well, you know, the way we think of the university and especially its beautiful brick wall, by the way, built in large measure by enslaved people, as something that separates the university from the community. And in many ways, campuses are thought of as oases or as retreats to get away from it all. But the University of South Carolina is nothing without its community. Both its neighboring community directly around the campus but I would argue across the entire state, the University of South Carolina belongs to the state and I would say vice versa. We're the only major university along with South Carolina State, by the way, those two, that have our state's name embedded in our own name. So you cannot run away or hide from the state or from our communities. And so we wanted these sessions to be open to community members. And I'll tell you a brief anecdote. When I first came to the university as dean of the School of Public Health and at my first commencement that I presided at, there was an African-American female doctoral candidate whose degree was conferred, Melva Thompson. Later, Melva Thompson Robinson. And when I greeted her family in the lobby of the Koger Center following the event, her mom was crying. And I said, well, it's a very emotional time. I understand that. I think my mom cried, too, when I got my Ph.D. And Melva turned and said, Oh, she's not crying because she because I got my degree. She's crying because she was on the campus of the University of South Carolina campus that forbade her to walk across it. When she was walking through Columbia, she was not allowed to traverse on the campus. And it struck me then as a mark of modern history that I was simply not aware of. And so we all have a lot of learning to do about this. And I truly believe that learning leads to liberation, liberation of the heart, liberation of the mind. So, of course, the work of the commission belongs to the community, the greater community as well. And we had quite a few individuals and groups from the community who provided their their points of view.
Sally McKay: That's a really an amazing story. And yes, learning and liberation learning humanizes character — our motto that we that we really stand on at this university. I'm curious about your thoughts on renaming. And I think there are people out in the public who think that this commission is the commission on renaming. And, of course, it's much more than that. It's really about providing historical context for the university and its spaces. But we certainly have to deal with renaming or at least address it. And the commission started there last June with Sims, the Sims dormitory. I spoke with with President Caslen and Elizabeth and Val about that. And no recommendation has been made for the replacement name, but renaming nonetheless is something we have to think about. And I think about the anecdote you just shared and the tears of being able to be in a place that at one point did not want her there. That could be said of the names on many of our buildings. They represent people in a time that really didn't want minorities on our campus and specifically African-Americans. So how do we how do we handle both sides of this naming issue?
Harris Pastides: It's very complex, and the first thing I would say is don't lead with the heart, lead with history, lead with research, lead with education, and, of course, use the heart as well for additional input. Now, the commission knows that there are individual students, faculty, staff, visitors who both take offense at names on our landscape and tell us that they cannot feel comfortable, they cannot feel valued, they cannot learn well. Those are extremely important, heartfelt considerations. There are other points of view that say once you remove names in a wholesale way, let's say purge every name of every individual who did wrong, then there's less of an opportunity to learn about that period of history. And that's also a — and we've got plenty of historians on the committee, too. And that was not my way of choosing between the two points of view, but my way of indicating how both time consuming and challenging it is to incorporate these sentiments and many, many others, by the way, using a set of now-approved criteria to examine each name on the landscape individually. And so if names were to be removed, that is not, by the way, the commission's duty — we are not a tribunal that says yea or nay or we're not, we have no authority or power to remove any name — only to be advisory, of course. But let's say all of the names were purged, then it would be critically important to still tell the university history and have people learn — be able to learn who these people were and what roles they played. With Richard T. Greener and the work of Professor Christian Andersen and his colleagues in the College of Education, I learned about that important part of the university's history after the Civil War and during Reconstruction and, you know, before the more odious era that followed it, to learn about black faculty and students and administrators and legislators and freed individuals who were attending. And I had very little idea about that. And so, you know, you have to, as a commission, come down on the side of learning and education because, again, that will lead to the transformation that the university is wanting to experience.
Sally McKay: You’re naming a really important part of our history in South Carolina, in the South, after the Civil War and Reconstruction. And I'm listening and hearing you about this really being a responsibility, it seems, not just of the commission, but perhaps other areas of the university to help our students, faculty, staff, the greater community in Columbia and indeed the state know that part of our history, as well. And you mentioned historians on the commission, certainly Elizabeth and Val among them. And this kind of work takes time. And historians, I think, are very patient people, at least the ones that I know and — but others in the public maybe aren't so aren't so patient and might say, hey, we've been waiting for your work, your report, some answers for a very long time. We heard recently from our student body president and our student body vice president, Issy Rushton and Hannah White expressing their frustration with the pace of the work of the commission. Can you speak to that a little bit? The commission put out a statement in response? A very thoughtful one. I thought, and I'm curious if you can just help us understand from your point of view how important it is to being meticulous and to get this right as the commission does its work.
Harris Pastides: Well, of course, getting it right is what's most important, and I don't mean right in any one individual's point of view, but in a consensus minded, consensus driven approach. People won't be shocked to hear that nothing in the university moves that quickly, you know, analyzing and modifying a curriculum, let's say the Carolina Core, often takes a decade, sometimes two decades. And you might say, really, it took you 10 years to tweak the curriculum, to update the curriculum, because, you know, that's a cornerstone matter. Yes, of course it does. And faculty are, you know, exemplary debaters and challengers. And so now, having said that, the COVID pandemic happened after we were formed. And I do believe in the early part of the pandemic, we thought, well, let it pass and we'll start meeting again face to face. And then, of course, we had to learn those tough lessons like everybody did and start meeting virtually. But I mean, we certainly would have been done by now had it not been for the pandemic. And I'm not defensive nor apologetic about the time that it has taken. This is what it takes to do to do a work like this. And I hope the effort will will be worthy of the time that it's taking.
Sally McKay: Let me close, if I may just ask you a bit on a personal level, but also as a co-chair of of this commission, what hopes you have for the outcome of the commission's work? I asked Elizabeth and Val and President Caslen this also but even beyond what may appear in a report or on paper in some way or even announced, what hopes do you have?
Harris Pastides: My hope is that everybody, every constituency of the university will gain, will increase its education and will gain respect for the University of South Carolina today and tomorrow. I strongly believe that nobody in coming to terms with our past should hate our present at all. It is about reckoning, it is about elucidated, elucidating, uncovering, analyzing, researching our past. The university is doing this so it can become better. There are so many important steps that have been taken during President Caslen's early days, for example, that speak boldly to his and the university's and the board of trustees' commitment to make an even better university. The commission's findings are one more step that provides evidence that we seek not to hide or to keep the past secret, but to uncover and learn from it. And to me, that is a very bold and a very optimistic view of today's University of South Carolina. And therefore my ultimate goal and in spite of the fact that people will agree and disagree on specifics that may be contained, that everybody will say, well, you know, I may not agree with that thing, that recommendation, let's call it, but I'm so glad that I learned more about it. I'm so glad that we went through this process. That's a good thing. And I hope that all of our constituents and people who for so many years have loved this university will grow in their affection because of the work being done by the commission, at least in small measure. I know it's not like winning an athletic championship, but it is very, very important to us all, and I hope it's received that way.
After talking with Bob Caslen, Val Littlefield, Elizabeth West and Harris Pastides, I couldn’t help but think about the university’s future students, faculty, staff and presidents and future generations of South Carolinians who will study the work of this commission and be more educated about the complicated history of the university and the state.
Thanks for listening to this episode of State of the University with Bob Caslen, Bye for now and forever to thee.
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