USC, Louisiana State only SEC schools recognized
South Carolina may still fly the Confederate flag in front of its Statehouse, but its flagship university has been named one of the top schools in the nation for fostering diversity and tolerance on campus.
INSIGHT into Diversity magazine gave USC one of its 47 annual Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) awards that recognize exemplary initiatives for all aspects of diversity. It’s well-earned, according to Bobby Gist, executive assistant to President Pastides for the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs.
“It is quite an honor to get this award,” Gist said. “We work very hard and do a lot of training of staff and students to make sure everyone feels included and equal. Not only does this award help us gain national recognition, but it also vindicates what we already know, which is that we are one of the most tolerant and supportive schools in the country.”
Alongside LSU, USC is one of the two recipients in the SEC and the only one in South Carolina. Though the South is infamous for racism and intolerance, USC has been a leader in changing that reputation, according to assistant director of Equal Opportunity Programs Carl Wells. He doesn’t directly contribute deep-set racism to the lack of other schools in the SEC being recognized. He believes that schools may be having issues — such as Ole Miss, whose students rioted after the re-election of President Barack Obama — but are addressing them.
“I think that you have some good schools in the SEC and they’re working towards fixing some of their diversity issues,” Wells said. “USC has long been a very accepting institution. We didn’t have the problems when colleges were integrated in the South like they did at Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi.”
Today, approximately 17 percent of students within the USC system are African-American, 3.5 percent are Hispanic and 2.4 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, making USC the most diverse school in the state and one of the most diverse in the Southeast. The university also has a diverse group of faculty and staff members, with a higher percentage of female and black faculty members than most schools in the Southeast. The University of Georgia is the closest rival in regard to diverse faculty members, but Gist said UGA has been “under the knife” to grow its numbers of minority professors.
While race and gender may be the “8,000-pound elephant in the room,” they are not the only focus of Equal Opportunity Programs or the diversity task force.
USC was the first in the state to create a sexual orientation policy preventing the discrimination of students and faculty based on sexual preferences. Clemson and College of Charleston soon followed suit by creating their own policies. South Carolina is also the only school in the SEC to have a full-time LBGT coordinator on staff to support lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender students.
Zac Baker, president of USC’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian Student Alliance, said the university’s creation of the full-time coordinator position showed its commitment to its minorities.
“We’re sort of the student representatives, the social arm — but it’s not just a student organization,” the fourth-year visual communications said. “This is a place the university can give resources for in-the-closet freshmen.”
He said a faculty member told him at BGLSA’s National Coming Out Day celebration on Greene Street last month that the event had drawn ridicule on campus as recently as 10 years ago.
“This year, not only did we feel safe, but people were walking by and giving a thumbs up, saying things like, ‘My uncle’s gay,’” Baker said.
USC has been at the forefront of these social issues, Baker said, especially in the South. But he said that progress needs to be furthered to make sure the university is safe and inclusive to all students.
“We’ve had decent strides,” he said. “BGLSA participated in homecoming for the first time this year. But we need to make sure everyone is represented and that everyone feels safe at the university. If you don’t feel safe in your dorm or don’t feel safe at your university, what are we doing?”
One improvement BGLSA will focus on next semester is transgender awareness. The group has started talking to Student Government with hopes of making gender nonspecific bathrooms and housing available to students in the future.
“I think USC has done a good job of making us feel safe, but definitely has a ways to go,” Baker said.
Acceptance and tolerance have become products of programs such as Safe Ally, University 101 and the general college experience, Wells said. He attributes USC’s success to an early start in respecting others and hopes that the university can continue to lead the state toward equality and understanding.
“It’s a funny thing that happens on college campuses,” Wells said. “By virtue of things like the Carolina Creed and students being encouraged to become critical thinkers, there tends to be more openness to diversity. If we continue to become a growing influence in South Carolina, we can shape Columbia and the state. The school doesn’t necessarily mirror the state but the state does mirror the school.”