Like so many in our community, I am deeply distressed over the recent deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police. Every account I have read about the murders of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor is so upsetting I can barely think about anything else. How can a country that stands on the principles of freedom and justice for all perpetuate the systemic racism that criminalizes, dehumanizes, and marginalizes members of our own society?
In recent conversations with students, colleagues, alums, and friends of the Honors College, I have been reminded again and again of the values that ground us and inspire us. These values – critical examination and analysis of facts, knowledge that is broad and deep, diversity of perspective and experience, equity and inclusion, self-awareness and humility, empathy and concern for others and the common good – are meaningless without action, though. What have we done as an Honors community to bring these values to life? What are we doing that contradicts these values? As I wrap up my time as dean and reflect on who we are as an Honors College, I believe that we have made progress in creating a more diverse, inclusive, and engaged community, but I also believe there’s much work left to do.
In the past few years, we have reformed our curriculum, broadened and strengthened Honors Engaged, our year-long service learning program, built a more intentional leadership development program, and restructured our admissions process, all toward the goal of integrating more diverse perspectives, experiences, and engagement. Our curriculum reform aimed to encourage a broader understanding of the development of human culture and society by removing the Western Civilization interdisciplinary seminar requirement and replacing it with an Exploring Complexity and Diversity colloquium series. Although the Western Civilization course was beloved by many for its challenging readings and rigorous discussion, it focused primarily on the Western canon and Western values. Students are still able to explore the roots of Western Civilization in the new curriculum, but they also have the opportunity to take a greater variety of courses that ask probing questions about the foundations of society and the sociopolitical dynamics that undergird and sustain societal norms. They critically examine the systems of power that have allowed white people to dominate over non-white people through colonization, subjugation, and empire building. Might we do more, though, to challenge students to develop habits of discovery and discourse that lead them to seek the truth in a way that incorporates diverse perspectives and dissenting voices? Could we do more to introduce them to a wider range of scholars and writers who have captured the narratives of culture and lived experiences of peoples in every corner of the earth and throughout all the ages? Are we encouraging them to push the boundaries of their knowledge and assumptions to arrive at new insights about their own beliefs and values? Are we preparing our students to understand how systemic racism is sustained and what they, as citizens and leaders, might do to break down the structures that perpetuate inequity?
The Honors College is more than a set of courses, though. It’s a community, and we feel called repeatedly to reflect on the ways in which we are modeling the values and actions that promote equity and inclusion. We have come to the conclusion, for example, that diversity among our students, faculty, and staff will not happen organically. There are too many systems and habits in place that act as barriers to that goal. In other words, we will only achieve diversity through intention. For example, we critically analyzed our admissions process and realized that our narrowly focused review privileged students from wealthy, predominately white schools. We now take a deeper dive into each applicant’s record to understand their achievement, leadership, motivation, and aspirations. This process has resulted in a more diverse mix of voices and perspectives in the Honors College, and the opportunity to create more inclusive programming that brings those voices to the forefront. This is progress that gives me hope. But, while we have moved forward in diversifying our student population, we have not made the same progress with our faculty and staff. As with our admissions process, I believe a more diverse faculty and staff will only be achieved through an intentional effort to make it happen, and I implore campus leadership to make this a priority.
On another front, we have worked to incorporate leadership opportunities that equip students to be bold leaders guided by strong ethical principles. Recent evidence of this type of leadership is the Series on Race that our student leaders have put together. Ironically, these students are part of the William Aiken Fellows Society, a group that bears the name of one of the largest owners of enslaved people in the history of South Carolina. When John Newell and I formed the Aiken Fellows Society more than 10 years ago, we used that name for the simple reason that the Honors College is housed in a building that was owned by Governor William Aiken, Jr. We should have given more thought to his legacy, though. Members of the Aiken Fellows Society have urged us to change the name of the group, and we agree that should happen. Therefore, as one of my final actions before I leave the Honors College, we will remove the name, William Aiken, from the Society and call it instead the Honors Leadership Fellows Society. Along with several alumni of the Society, I have established a leadership program endowment that will help to support the continued work of the Honors Leadership Fellows Society. In the original gift agreement crafted earlier this year, I was fairly broad in my description of how the money could be used. However, I intend to work with staff in Institutional Advancement to change the gift agreement to ensure that the funds are directed toward activities that serve the greater good of the Charleston community and that the Honors Leadership Fellows Society grows in diversity, inclusion, and equity.
We value every member of our community, but especially today as we reflect on the significance of Juneteenth, we stand particularly with our Black students and alumni. All lives will not matter until Black Lives Matter. We will ensure that the voices of Black and Brown members of our community are heard, respected, and put into action. We will encourage dialogue, we will stand in solidarity during protest, and we will commit to the change that is necessary to ensure the removal of all barriers to the goals and aspirations of our Black students.
Trisha Folds-Bennett, Ph.D.