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Clemson History Offers Perspective for Flag Debate

by Black Issues

 Clemson History Offers Perspective for Flag Debate

Clemson University is a state agency as well as a university. As a state agency, we are governed by the laws and policies of the state of South Carolina and therefore have a stake in the development of such laws and policies — a stake that encompasses the current debate regarding the Confederate flag that flies over our state Capitol building.
As a university, Clemson does not have a formal role in determining the outcome of the flag debate. But universities do have a role in our society to provide unbiased information that can lend perspective to such debates, whether the information is the result of institutional policy or one individual’s reflections. The following is based on the latter.
In December, I assumed office as Clemson University’s 14th president, and part of my preparation has been a study of the history of Clemson. There is one aspect of Clemson’s history that I find relevant to today’s discussions of the Confederate flag.
As I began my Clemson education in the early 1960s, the university was changing rapidly. We had successfully made the conversion from an all-military college for men to a coeducational civilian university, thanks to the remarkable leadership of President Robert Cook Edwards and the Clemson Board of Trustees. However, other important changes were coming as Clemson prepared to change from an all-White institution to an integrated institution. African-American students peacefully enrolled at Clemson University led by architecture student Harvey Gantt. It was a process that showed the best of Clemson University, and it was described in the national press as “integration with dignity.”
As Clemson’s population became more diverse, we became more aware of existing symbols that represented our university at sports and other public events. These symbols included the playing of “Tiger Rag” and “Dixie,” as well as the Tiger and Country Gentleman mascots, and the Confederate flag. Clemson officials listened carefully to our new, more diverse student body. It was clear that some of these symbols were stronger than others in representing the kind of place Clemson wanted to be and the kind of future Clemson envisioned for itself.
Again, President Edwards and the Clemson Board of Trustees led Clemson University into a bright future, maintaining aspects of its traditions — including “Tiger Rag” and the Tiger mascot — and letting the other symbols — the Country Gentleman mascot, the Confederate flag and “Dixie” — be a part of Clemson’s past. Of course, the Tiger Paw and the University Seal were added later to symbolize the Clemson we know today. Now, it is difficult to imagine Clemson University without the Tiger mascot, the Tiger Paw, the University Alma Mater and “Tiger Rag.”
Clemson stands today ranked in the top 40 of all public universities in America.  Our College of Engineering and Science has attracted a National Science Foundation engineering research center that is expected to generate $100 million in research funding over the next 10 years; our performing arts chamber singers — now the Clemson University Singers — have performed at Carnegie Hall. Our average freshman SAT score for the class entering this fall was 1158. Our faculty members are winning international awards for their teaching. And Clemson University is emerging as a model land-grant institution.
Our student body includes 1,233 African Americans as well as international students from 73 countries. Although Clemson is committed to further increases in the diversity of our student body, faculty and staff, I am convinced that much of Clemson’s success can be traced to the decisions made more than three decades ago regarding the symbols that would represent Clemson University and its future.
There are many differences between a university and a state, as well as differences between the decade of the 1960s and the first decade of the next century.  However, the history of Clemson University may be a useful study to our state as we consider our future and the symbols that will represent us.
South Carolina has one of the nation’s healthiest economies, is home to many national and even international companies as well as a burgeoning port authority, and is a rapidly growing population center. Its future seems undeniably bright. South Carolina also has many strong symbols: the palmetto tree, the state flag, revolutionary battlefields, and natural scenic beauty. Our debate should center on which of these symbols will best represent us and the kind of future we want to build for South Carolina.    

—  Dr. Jim Barker is president of Clemson University. This article by Barker was originally published in The State newspaper on December 3, 1999.  More recently, the Clemson Faculty Senate, the South Carolina Council of College and University Presidents, and the  Clemson Board of Trustees have passed resolutions calling for the
Confederate battle flag to be removed from the state Capitol.

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