By Elizabeth Davis
A few years ago, I wrote a piece about the national empathy deficit and the essential role that universities could play in closing this gap. College exposes students to the diversity of human thought and experience. Students learn empathy from studying history, other cultures, and human ideas and expression in a wide range of disciplines, helping students to better understand themselves and those who are different.
I have reflected on this over the past few weeks as we have been shaken by a series of horrifying incidents of racial violence. As much as we must teach empathy and citizenship, universities have a duty to acknowledge and take action against racism – with humility and the understanding that we have much to learn and can only do so by listening to those who directly experience racism.
At Furman, we have undertaken a close examination of our institutional ties to slavery, segregation and injustice through our Task Force on Slavery and Justice. The task force, in its “Seeking Abraham” report, documented a history of white supremacy that lasted well into the second half of the 20th century, not only at Furman but throughout South Carolina and across the country.
We have taken steps to tell more fully the Furman story and to create visual representations of all who have helped shape the university over its nearly 200 years. This includes renaming our lakeside housing complex for Clark Murphy, who was a beloved longtime worker at the Greenville Woman’s College, which later merged with Furman. It also includes the commissioning of a statue of Joseph Vaughn, the university’s first African American undergraduate student. The statue will be placed in front of the university’s library in a place of reflection and celebration, and is expected to be unveiled at the second annual Joseph Vaughn Day on Jan. 29.
We have also dramatically expanded a scholarship named for Vaughn to provide additional need-based financial aid that will benefit African American students, particularly students from areas where Furman historically had campuses in South Carolina. This, along with other efforts, has helped Furman bring in its most diverse classes ever over the past two years.
Furman has looked for other ways to educate and create opportunity for diversity and inclusion through various programs, including Bridges to a Brighter Future, the College Advising Corps and the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative. More recently, Furman added the Center for Inclusive Communities to support students of color, address belongingness on campus and promote understanding with majority students.
We are far from perfect at Furman, and the continued incidents of racism remind us that we need to do so much more. We must confront this moment with empathy and a spirit of caring, but also with conviction and a call to action. In confronting an uncomfortable truth and asking tough questions of ourselves, maybe we can begin to understand what it takes to build a beloved community.
Elizabeth Davis is the president of Furman University.