CCU trustee wants to set the record straight
Dr. Oran Smith, Coastal Carolina University Board of Trustee member, said last week was a painful week for him.
“At one point I broke down … and said ‘that’s not me,’” Smith said.
Smith was recently announced as a finalist for the position of Executive Director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, and he said it came to light that right after college, Smith worked for Southern Partisan, a publication classified as “neo-Confederate”.
He referenced a news article by a Midlands news outlet about the affiliation with the magazine, which he believed painted him in an unfair light, and does not reflect his changed values.
“That … newspaper article labeled me with views that I don’t hold, due to a mistaken connection to an employer I had 30 years ago when I was just out of college,” Smith said. “They tried to tie me to some violent, horrible, bigoted people and I just didn’t think that was fair.”
He said back then, the best way to describe the magazine was a “guns and muskets, southern history type of magazine.” It published articles about Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and even singer Hank Williams.
“Anything that had a southern flair to it was in the magazine,” Smith said.
He was just out of college and worked there doing a bit of editing, he said.
“ …It was blown up into accusing me of being a neo-Confederate,” Smith said. “I think that’s people that think maybe they wish they south had won, I’m not really sure what a neo-confederate is necessarily.”
He said when he left that place of employment more than 20 years ago, he said he realized he’d been in a “bubble.”
“Once I was out of that bubble, I began to see … how these types of symbols and emblems are very, very hurtful to a number of my fellow citizens and believers. I’m a professing Christian believer and I just began to understand why African-American citizens find those symbols so hurtful and sometimes fear-invoking,” Smith said.
After the shooting took place at Mother Emanuel in Charleston in 2015, there was discussion of taking the Confederate flag down from the monument. Smith said he wrote a column that summer explaining his whole history and how he came to understand the danger of those symbols, and how “out of mutual respect we ought to just take the [Confederate] flag down.”
“I thought I had come through a dramatic change in my belief about confederate symbols,” Smith said.
When the story first broke last week during the time of the regular Board of Trustees meeting, he said he took the opportunity to approach faculty leaders and student leaders to explain how he came to believe what he believes.
“I was able to articulate it in person, and I felt even more deeply to try to take the flag down, and that these symbols that are hurtful to people,” Smith said.
He said he did not think his prior affiliation should affect his standing on the CCU board.
“I think I have a very good record on the board, over 25 years of supporting diversity and inclusion and academic freedom, and made sure nobody that comes to CCU and because of who they are feels uncomfortable or unwanted. Diversity and inclusion … it’s important.”
CCU President David DeCenzo and Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Atiya Stokes-Brown issued a joint statement this afternoon, saying Smith has demonstrated support for diversity and inclusion, and for faculty and student rights. They said he has been regarded as an asset to the board.
“We empathize and understand why some members of our community are hurting. Together, we commit to using this experience to foster productive and healing dialogue, paving the way to continue the important work of diversity and inclusion that has always been a part of our campus,” DeCenzo and Stokes-Brown said.
During CCU’s special-called Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday evening, some senate members said Smith had always been an advocate for CCU, and always looked at the best interest of the university. Others said that his “personal commitments” are at odds with the institution.
He said he hopes that people can find it in their heart to understand the situation.
The commission was hoping to fill the executive director position sometime in June, according to Smith, and he said that if he were to get that job, he would likely step down from the board.
“I’m not sure if I legally have to resign from the board, but I thought because I would be expected to be fair to all colleges and universities, I would not want to be part of one that might send a signal that I have higher regard [for one school over another]”, Smith said.