Dark Histories Cast Shadows over Diversity Initiatives in Higher Education

Sitting 30 miles apart, two upstate South Carolina universities seem to have mostly proximity in common. Furman University is a small, selective, and private liberal arts college while nearby public, land-grant Clemson University is the second largest research university in the state, touting a high-profile football program.

Yet, these universities represent higher education’s struggles with dark histories and a stubborn gap between faculty and student demographics compared to the communities and states they serve.

Private colleges with restrictive admission guidelines and higher costs have long struggled with diversity, but “[a] growing number of public universities are becoming less affordable and accessible for low-income students and people of color,” reports Ashley A. Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

In one ranking from 2016, Clemson (HHI 0.707) sat 98 among the top 100 universities, even less diverse than Furman (HHI 0.662), ranking 85 among the top 100 liberal arts colleges*. Both schools serve, notably, South Carolina with a black population of 26% (national rate 12%).

While many universities have begun reckoning with their histories as well as committing to diversity initiatives, diversity goals for faculty and student populations mirroring the general public remain elusive.

Reckoning with, Not Erasing, the Past

One permanent shadow appears to be Tillman Hall on the campus of Clemson University, the source of a contentious 2015 debate among students, faculty, administration, and the community.

Tillman Hall is named for former SC governor and senator Benjamin Tillman, who also founded Winthrop University (Rock Hill, SC). Will Moredock explains, “Modern historians generally regard Tillman as a fire-breathing racist, opportunist, and demagogue who played on the worst of human nature to promote himself to the highest levels of state government.”

The lack of action by administration concerning Tillman Hall spurred a student organization formed about a year earlier, See the Stripes, to continue urging Clemson toward greater diversity and inclusion:

The central idea of See The Stripes is an acknowledgement that The Tiger has stripes, which are an integral part of its existence and survival. While The Tiger could be seen as “Solid Orange” a solid orange tiger could not survive without its stripes. Similarly, Clemson University’s history has its dark parts that should be acknowledged—particularly the histories of laborers who contributed significantly to its development: slaves, sharecroppers and convict laborers.

The Tillman Hall stalemate represents one powerful hurdle for diversity goals at a university when the past remains an unaddressed stain on the present.

Furman’s reckoning has come in the form of a Task Force on Slavery and Justice, prompted by a new provost, and a diversity and inclusion committee charged by the university president.

The Task Force report, Seeking Abraham, confronts slavery and  racism in the founding of the university, but also details a roadmap of actions for moving forward as an essential part of creating a university community that is more inclusive.

Good Intentions, Rhetoric Not Enough

None the less, Furman student Juhee Bhatt blogged that good intentions of diversity initiatives are not enough:

Inclusiveness is much more than portraying students of color in news articles or acknowledging Furman’s role in slavery. Inclusiveness is an unfolding process of action that affirms the humanity of each minority on campus, it is not only displaying a headshot…or working to strengthen diversity statistics. Inclusivity is not a one-step process, rather it demands individuality and intentionality.

Across the U.S., college and universities employ faculty that are disproportionately white and male (especially at the higher ranks) and serve students channeled through narrowing admission processes and limited by increasing costs.

Further, diversity initiatives are often dulled by external forces, such as undermatching, and suffer from student and faculty skepticism about programs that seem to be more rhetoric than action, as Bhatt expresses.

Another challenge for diversity and inclusion programs is implementation, too often targeting diverse populations instead of acknowledging that diversity and inclusion awareness must be for all stakeholders—especially majority populations.

“Inclusivity Is Not a One-step Process”

A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report outlines the complex ways that colleges and universities can better attain diversity goals. These steps include more than diversity and inclusion programs, but include the following:

  • Creating mission statements to provide a context and foundation for action and policy.
  • Recognizing diversity must pervade the entire campus—faculty, administration, staff, and students—in ways reflecting the rhetoric of those mission statements.
  • Prioritizing diversity through admissions and hiring practices.
  • Providing diverse populations with on-campus support.
  • Establishing and maintaining inclusive climates as a precursor to increasing quantifiable diversity throughout the institution.
  • Resisting silver bullets, and dedicating funds and policy to a “multi-pronged commitment to diversity,” as the USDOE report concludes.

The U.S. must have colleges and universities where faculty, staff, and students represent the entire spectrum of diversity within the communities they serve, but commitments to diversity and inclusion must be more than banners, rhetoric, and public relations if those goals are to be met.


* The ranking index used (HHI): “A student body that is entirely White would have an HHI of 1. A student body that is equally made up of people from five different racial groups would have an HHI of 0.2.”

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