Lee Gill’s first week at Clemson University was marked by student protests.
In the days before he started as Clemson’s chief diversity officer in April 2016, more than 100 students had staged a sit-in at Sikes Hall to demand that the school do more to address diversity and racism.
The demonstration was in its fifth day when Gill arrived on campus.
“They were out on the steps right in front of my office welcoming me,” he said with a laugh.
Gill, a 20-year veteran of higher education, said he doesn’t admonish the students who participated. In a way, he admires them.
He attended college during the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when student demonstrations were a “rite of passage,” Gill said.
“We as students were all involved in that, and we thought we could change the world,” he said.
‘I was a total country boy’
Born and raised in the Midwest, Gill grew up on a farm in South Bend, Indiana, and spent an idyllic childhood hunting and fishing and swimming in his favorite swimming holes.
“I was a total country boy,” he said.
His parents were farmers who hailed from the South. His mother had an eighth-grade education; his father never finished elementary school.
Yet Gill said they stressed education and made their son go to church “literally seven days a week.”
In college, Gill studied sociology and political science at the University of Michigan before receiving his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
He worked as an affirmative action officer, then started his own consulting firm, where he advised organizations on how to diversify staff and build a more inclusive environment.
When Clemson came calling
In 2015, Gill was serving as chief diversity officer at the University of Akron in Ohio when he received a call from Clemson. The school was conducting a search for its own diversity officer and wanted to know if Gill was interested.
Gill, who said he knew relatively little about Clemson at the time, wasn’t sure.
But as he learned more about the school and did his own research, Gill began to change his mind. He read about Harvey Gantt, and the role Clemson had in the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina.
“I realized the legal fight that it took for Harvey Gantt to enroll here, but that being said, there was no other institution besides Clemson that led the way, and that was very intriguing to me,” Gill said.
Winning the war
Gill accepted the job during a particularly tense time at Clemson.
The previous year had been rocked by protests in which students as well as faculty members fought unsuccessfully to rename Tillman Hall. The building is named in honor of Benjamin Tillman, a Reconstruction-era South Carolina politician and well-known white supremacist who had advocated for the lynching of blacks.
While Gill understands why the building should be renamed, he believes that there are purer victories.
He’d rather invest money on student scholarships, faculty diversity and bridge programs along the state’s Interstate 95 corridor, also known as the “Corridor of Shame.”
Many of those initiatives have already taken root under Gill’s leadership, but more can be done. “You can win the battle but lose the war,” he said. “I want to win the war.”