President Pastides' keynote address

Prepared remarks for President Pastides' keynote address given during the 28th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at MLK Park and Community Center in Columbia, South Carolina on Jan. 18, 2016 

I am honored to be with you this afternoon as we commemorate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am grateful to Ms. Henri Baskins and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation for this kind invitation. 

Dr. King continues to be a great source of inspiration to me and also to our students, faculty and staff at the University of South Carolina. He exemplifies the power and impact of service generously given.  In fact, he often said, "Greatness is determined by service." For 30 years the University has embraced Dr. King's teaching—culminating every January in days of service given in his name. 

At Carolina, our goal is to keep the spirit of Dr. King with us year round as we demonstrate not only service but also respect for others while learning from our differences. There is always more to do. Indeed, when I look at the state of racial inequities in our educational system, both in state and nationwide, I feel as though I understand what was in Dr. King's heart when he talked about the "fierce urgency of now."  Today, we need that "fierce urgency of now" more than ever because obtaining educational equality for all children is going to require a new movement and we call that movement educational justice. 

Educational justice begs the question: "How long must we wait?" 

  • It's been 120 years since the United States Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, allowed state-sponsored segregation in our public schools. 
  • It's been more than 70 years since the United States Supreme Court, in Briggs v. Elliot, denied an injunction to abolish segregation while granting an injunction to equalize educational facilities. 
  • So, "How long must we wait?" It's been more than 60 years since the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation of students in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In 1954, the court ruled that separate facilities are inherently unequal.  A year later, July 15, 1955, a decree was entered voiding South Carolina's school segregation law as unconstitutional and ordering schools integrated with all deliberate speed

At Carolina, our goal is to keep the spirit of Dr. King with us year round as we demonstrate not only service but also respect for others while learning from our differences. 

And still the plaintiffs had to ask, "How long must we wait?" 

It took another nine years before South Carolina offered actual compliance with the law. In 1963, 15-year-old Millicent Brown and ten other children desegregated a handful of South Carolina Schools.  And it took another year before the law was fully enforced.  But even that didn't close the door on inequality.  Substantial discrepancies remained within the state's impoverished rural schools. 

Again, the question, "How long must we wait?" 

For 21 years a case that centered on the state's role in providing a "minimally adequate education" to our children in rural and poor districts, slowly moved through the courts.  Finally, on November 11, 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Abbeville County School District v. the State of South Carolina.  In a close 3-2 vote the majority declared that the state had failed to provide a minimally adequate education to children in the state's poorest school districts.  It now must be remedied in the legislative arena. 

And still the refrain, "How long must we wait?" 

We know that in the United States a large proportion of students are growing up in poor or low-income families.  Nationally, low-income children of color are profoundly impacted by our educational failures.  And as we wait, we've learned that students in impoverished districts have fewer qualified teachers, larger class sizes, fewer and outdated textbooks, poor facilities and very limited access to new technologies. 

And we've also learned that an impoverished education negatively impacts economic security, racial integration and critical issues such as housing, public health and safety.  Sadly, as the years have gone by, an inadequate education has increased the flow of the school to prison pipeline.  When we have a pothole in the road, we can easily fix it.  When dams break during unseasonal flooding, we can call out the corps of engineers and, within a reasonable time, we can fix that too.  But when we deny generations of students an education—that cannot be repaired. 

Our only choice is to instigate a transformational change in the form of educational justice—a change of policies and programs as well as changes in the way that we think and act across all institutions.  

We are working hard at the University to create this transformational change by reaching out to our minority students and creating a welcoming learning environment. We place diversity and inclusion as one of our top priorities.  We are experiencing some success.  In December we learned that the Education Trust report recognized USC as a national leader for improving graduation rates for minority students. In fact, USC ranks in the top five among flagship universities for closing the graduation gap between minority and white students over the past decade. 

We have increased our minority enrollment by 24.4 percent on the Columbia campus from 4,641 students to 5,777 and we are graduating these students at an every increasing rate.  

Our other initiatives include: 

  • Office of Multicultural Affairs 
  • TRIO and Opportunity Scholars 
  • Gamecock Guarantee and the Student Success Center 
  • And two years ago, the creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion 

Recently, the SEC awarded Carolina a substantial grant so that we might share our diversity programs with the entire conference.  I am proud that we have, once again, received for the fourth consecutive year, the Higher Educational Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award presented by the nationally recognized Insight into Diversity publication. 

But we are still making up for lost time.  Last November we heard from students who have reasonable expectations that members of the university can do more to make them feel even more included, safer and more comfortable and will work to improve our environment and our culture—including the recruitment of even more students and faculty of color. 

And when they ask me, "How long must we wait?" 

I can reply that we are already on it.  That our students, staff and faculty leaders are acting right now, through our Diversity Committee.  I tell them that we are in the process of establishing the South Carolina Collaborative on Racial Reconciliation to create spaces for healthy dialogue about race and Implement thought actions that will lead toward the reconciliation and healing of racial differences in both the university community and communities across South Carolina. 

My goal is to end the waiting.  But I can't do it single handedly; I need your help through community organizing, community service and transformational educational justice. 

The Civil Rights song, We shall not be moved, inspires me, especially this verse, "We shall not, we shall not be moved.  Black and white together, we shall not be moved." We will not be moved from our goal of creating a more just city, state and country. 

And when, together, we are asked, "How long must we wait?" Each of us will say, as Dr. King did, "We believe in the fierce urgency of now."