Letter about the Presidential Commission on University History Report

July 14, 2021

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

In Fall 2019, the Presidential Commission on University History was charged with carefully examining the history of our university, especially with respect to the experiences of groups and communities who had been neglected, or left out entirely, from prior historical accounts. As Marcus Garvey said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Today, I am pleased to share with you my response to the Commission’s draft report. The final report will be available to our community on our university website on Friday, July 16 after the Commission’s final meeting. The report offers us recommendations, grounded in research and context, to consider and act upon and I embrace it as such.

Each of us will view the report through our own lived experience and will interpret the recommendations through that lens. I’m confident, however, that no matter where you land on its outcomes and conclusions, it will lead to important thinking and purposeful deliberation. The Commission has provided us with greater insight into our university’s complex history, including painful chapters that we cannot ignore. By learning our history, and grappling with its complexity, we can create a more inclusive, and better, future for all of us.

As with other universities that have undertaken similar initiatives, much attention will be paid to the names of buildings; this is understandable and appropriate. As the Commission’s report makes clear, and as I strongly affirm, the names given to many of our buildings honor individuals we would not even consider today. Some reflect a legacy of racism and oppression that we abhor and forcefully reject. I acknowledge the pain this causes throughout our community. State law currently prevents us from changing those names, and we will follow the law. However, we have a duty to tell a more complete history of these individuals and their acts in the context of our shared community values, the Carolinian Creed. We are committed to contextualizing the full history of the university and the Commission’s research shows us how we can do that, including the recommendation of adding new names to buildings and other places on campus. 

By learning our history, and grappling with its complexity, we can create a more inclusive, and better, future for all of us.

While the Heritage Act remains in place, the Board of Trustees is still committed to developing new policies that will address assigning names to new buildings and places on campus. The report includes the names of individuals, gathered from input received by the Commission, who contributed greatly to South Carolina and who also reflect our institutional values and culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. The recommended names will be considered by the Board and those ultimately selected will stand as a permanent testament to our collective history.

After the Commission’s final report is received on Friday, we will move from thoughtful examination to decisive action. In addition to the university’s current commitment of an $11 million investment in our diversity, equity and inclusion infrastructure over the next five years, I will take the following steps in response to the Commission’s recommendations.

The university will establish an Implementation Group, composed of key leaders from our administration, faculty, students and alumni to provide guidance with respect to research, education, communications and other efforts related to the Commission’s report and university history. The report’s recommendations include increased funding for research and scholarship, a comprehensive communications initiative across our digital platforms, the development of educational activities such as walking and virtual tours and the addition of context to the building names that exist today through educational signage, audio and other displays. Once formed, the Implementation Group will immediately begin their work to enact select recommendations from the Commission’s report.

We will also expand our commitment to education and research about South Carolina’s unique role in the civil rights history of our nation through the University of South Carolina Center for Civil Rights History and Research. Led by faculty member Dr. Bobby Donaldson, the Center is advancing the study of this important history and documenting the diversity of our community and state. You will hear more in the coming weeks about our commitment to the Center’s work.

I am extremely appreciative of the Commission’s work and commitment to the university and to all of our constituents. I’m especially grateful to the co-chairs, Dr. Valinda Littlefield, Associate Professor of History, College of Arts and Sciences, and Ms. Elizabeth West, University Archivist, for their shared wisdom, counsel and collective leadership. But the work they have started has just begun and I invite you to be part of our evolution. Your voice and participation matters, and we will continue to listen to our community as we implement these steps in the coming months. 

 Harris Pastides