Caslen, university leaders hold town hall to address on-campus diversity, COVID-19 concerns

Kailee Kokes / The Daily Gamecock

President Bob Caslen, Student Government leaders and university officials held a town hall Tuesday to discuss a safe return to campus in the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing diversity initiatives.

The student population of USC saw 79 new cases of COVID-19 from June 13 to 21, Caslen said, even without on-campus classes.

Infections are mostly occurring in “social settings” beyond the university’s control, such as Five Points, or off-campus apartments, he said.

“We, as members of this community, have to learn how we have to protect ourselves so that when we find ourselves in a public environment — we find ourselves in an environment that has increased risk — that we understand what it takes to prevent ourselves with hygiene, with facial protection, with social distancing separations and things like that,” Caslen said.

Caslen said at a point of “unacceptable risk," which he defines as COVID-19 spreading off campus and overwhelming hospitals, classes will be canceled again. He did not elaborate about what that threshold might be.

Student Body President Issy Rushton also briefly took over the town hall for a discussion of the #IPledgeColumbia campaign. Starting June 30, she said, students will be asked to sign an online pledge acknowledging their role in limiting the spread of COVID-19. 

“It is so important that in safeguarding our Gamecock community, and the student experience that we love so much, that we take an invested interest in our social responsibility and our role in the fight against COVID-19,” Rushton said.

The town hall’s topic then turned to the university’s strategic plan and ongoing diversity initiatives, including 2020 Revision, a list of six demands presented by student leaders to increase diversity on campus. Demands include the removal of problematic building names and the inclusion of more diverse classes in the Carolina Core. 

Student Body Vice President Hannah White said Student Government was very intentional in avoiding programs that just used terms such as “diversity” and “inclusion” as buzzwords. 

“We're writing in order to be an inclusive campus group through specific programming, but also making sure that everything we do, whether it's academic, student life or even resources that we have on campus, that they're accessible to all students,” White said.

A committee has also been put together to address 2020 Revision’s demands, White said.

Julian Williams, USC's first vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said he plans to address diversity on campus in three steps: getting those in marginalized groups to the university, having diverse and inclusive opportunities when they arrive and engaging with Columbia as a whole.

Williams calls this three-tiered plan “pathways, pipelines and partnerships.” 

“As you look at our Carolinian creed and our values, which are to be inclusive and equitable, and you put that on one side, and then you juxtapose what the experience is like for a large segment of our community, what does that day-to-day experience look like for students and faculty of color or for communities of color?” Williams said. “There's usually a gap there, and the gap is where the work exists.” 

Finally, Caslen addressed the petitions and public outcry regarding the the names of certain USC buildings, including Sims residence hall, which he recently endorsed renaming, and Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center.

“There’s no secret that we do have controversial names,” he said. 

Citing the commission formed to collect information on campus buildings, Caslen said there is no “reacting on a whim” to these names. 

“Now this is going to be a methodical process, and we would just ask everybody’s patience as we go through all of this, and then we'll get the report, and then I'll take action on it as a president, and then, if necessary, forward those recommendations to the board and then to the General Assembly,” he said. 


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