A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000

Article excerpt

A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000. By Henry H. Lesesne. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xvii, 471; $39.95, cloth.)

Between 1900 and 1940 research became a central preoccupation in some fifteen to twenty of America's leading universities. Fewer than six of the new research universities were state institutions and, with the exception of Johns Hopkins, none of them was located below the Mason-Dixon line. Like most southern schools, the University of South Carolina entered World War II as a provincial enterprise, inwardly focused and far removed from the rigors of first-class science and scholarship. The return of peace found the university ill prepared to face a Cold War world in which higher education would be mobilized in a global struggle of technology and ideas. All this was destined to change during the next half century. Well before the turn of the twenty-first century, academic life on the state's flagship campus would be outwardly oriented and responsive to the norms of graduate education and advanced research. Carolina would enter the new millennium as "a genuine research university committed to a public service mission in addition to teaching" (p. 327).

Henry Lesesne's carefully researched account of the University of South Carolina during the past six decades chronicles the school's metamorphosis in a narrative that provides regional context and comparison even as it emphasizes how the university's destiny was tied to the political and economic history of a single state. Like most institutional histories, this one gives scant attention to the content of specific academic disciplines as manifested over time in the work of university faculty. Prominent professors are mentioned, but the substance of their work is rarely discussed. Intellectual forces, as such, play little role in Lesesne's analysis which focuses instead on issues of presidential leadership, statewide educational politics (including turf battles with rival schools and reactions to civil rights and campus protest), program development, fiscal and demographic patterns, and changing modes of campus life. The resulting book is a candid chronicle of dreams deferred, uneven leadership, and eventual triumph over a generation of largely self-inflicted setbacks. Apologia is notably absent from Lesesne's work; purposeful assessment based upon hard statistical data is much in evidence.

Beginning in the 1940s, every decade of the postwar era witnessed efforts to move the University of South Carolina from the lower rungs of institutional status toward a position of greater academic strength. During 1944-45 the university established a scholarly press, secured outside support for a Bureau of Public Administration, and began doctoral work in the field of southern history. Proposals for increased support for research and graduate education went unheeded, however, and faculty morale sagged beneath the combined weight of high teaching loads and low pay. Administrative leadership was lackluster at best. The school's first postwar president, engineer and retired navy admiral Norman M. Smith, was a politically inept figure who became intensely unpopular with returning veterans. Smith took office just in time to witness the legislative defeat of an ambitious proposal for relocating and expanding the USC campus.

The stillbirth of this plan for a "new and greater university" owed much to destructive infighting among South Carolina's four white public universities, but perhaps even more to the state's fixation with the past and its diehard defense of racial segregation. Instead of admitting black graduate and professional students to programs in Columbia during the late 1940s, state lawmakers squandered painfully scarce higher education dollars by creating a separate law school and graduate school of education at historically black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Realistic observers knew that South Carolina's rear guard defense of white supremacy was doomed to ultimate failure. …