Sorensen built relationships, improved educational opportunities
During the 1960s, a young Andrew Sorensen visited the South on a passionate quest for civil rights and equality.
Those memories of his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stayed with him for decades, and during his time as USC’s president, he cultivated a special bond with the African-American community that opened doors for both minority students and the university.
“When he arrived here and was elected president, he went around and had conversations with people in the community,” said longtime Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson. “As a result, he learned two things: There was an estrangement between African-Americans in the community, and there was an estrangement between the University of South Carolina and city and state government.”
To Sorensen, that wasn’t acceptable.
First, he created a community advisory board and appointed Johnson. He traveled the state, preaching and singing in many African-American churches.
He also looked for ways to incorporate African-Americans into every aspect of the university. He hired African-American vendors for university projects, took special efforts to recruit more African-American students and frequently discussed how to improve race relations.
“African-Americans were actively involved in proposing solutions,” Johnson said. “That is a big difference in a lot of experiences that African-Americans have had where there was an expectation that they would just be benchwarmers just to be a facade. With Dr. Sorensen, it was a partnership. It was a joint effort. It was a coalition. He genuinely believed not only in diversity, but he believed in inclusiveness.”
Those steps led to concrete improvements in the academic institution as well, said Cleveland Sellers, current president at Voorhees College and former director of the African American studies program at USC. Sorensen’s efforts to recruit top African-American faculty brought in several distinguished scholars, including historian Kent Germany and political scientist Todd Shaw. He hired Burnele Powell as the first African-American dean of USC’s law school.
“We did very well during that period in terms of improving the quality of minority faculty coming to the university,” Sellers said.
He created the Gamecock Guarantee, a need-based scholarship program for low-income students, and worked to improve persistency and graduation rates at the university, Sellers said. Sorensen also helped lure former President Julian Bond of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to deliver speeches at USC. Sorensen also worked with Sellers to honor civil rights leaders during a special “Unsung Heroes” ceremony. And funding the African American studies department was always a priority, Sellers said.
“We began to see African-Americans begin to turn their papers over to the library at USC,” Sellers said. “We began to see more engagement in terms of genuine, honest dialogue between the African-American community in Columbia and the university. He didn’t just go for the power elites. He went for the minorities and others who weren’t always represented.”
Sellers left USC to take the presidency of Voorhees College just as Sorensen was leaving USC for Ohio State.
“It was one of the best educations in higher education I’ve ever had,” Sellers said.
Johnson echoed Sellers’ sentiments. Johnson said he was told of his close friend’s death as he was leaving church Sunday.
“He was a guest at my home for dinner,” Johnson said. “And it wasn’t one of those formal dinners at the dining room table, but it was at the kitchen table. He had a quick wit, and I’d been accused of having the same thing. We had a lot of fun with our exchanges. He called me brother, and I called him brother.
It was a feeling [as if] we were truly brothers. I felt there was a close connection between the two of us.”