Friday, March 14, 2014

MAKING IT: Ernest Finney honored for achievements in justice


Ernest A. Finney Jr. was a farmer, a student, a lawyer and, finally, a judge. “An ordinary brown corduroy boy / from folk who never had it made / but still managed to make / whatever they were to be from scratch,” his poet-daughter Nikky Finney wrote.
On Thursday, Finney, retired chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, will be honored with the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation “Commitment to Justice” award for a lifetime of accomplishment in the face of obstacles and hardship.
For Finney never had it made.
He is the fourth person (and third judge) to receive the justice award, following in the footsteps of Richard Fields, the late Ted Stern, former College of Charleston president, and Alex Sanders, also a former president of the College, legislator and co-founder of the Charleston School of Law.
The award is primarily a way to pay tribute to its recipients, but it’s also a way to shed a little light on the work of the center, according to its director Jennie Stephens.
“Heirs property is not often understood,” Stephens said. “Recognizing these giants in the community has really helped.” In some ways, they embody an issue which concerns the rights and economic empowerment of disadvantaged blacks and others. “We’re in South Carolina, and we know that South Carolina wasn’t always known for its appreciation of diversity.”
Finney was someone who fought for the rights of others, and persisted in securing the rights and privileges he deserved.
“Ernest Finney is truly a great American,” Sanders said. “Since Matthew Perry and Martin Luther King died, I’m not sure I could say that about anybody else.”
Finney was a man ahead of his times, a visionary who used the law to chip away at entrenched injustice.
“I am most impressed by his courage,” Sanders said. “I was with him in that era where he exhibited that courage. ... He did everything with grace. He did it unheralded.”
What he did was represent the Friendship Nine in early 1961 when the students spent a month in a Rock Hill jail after protesting lunch counter segregation at McCrory’s. Many participated in the sit-ins, but nine from Friendship College refused an offer of bail from the NAACP. They did not want to contribute dollars to the coffers of segregationists. Henceforth, “Jail, No Bail” became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement.
What he did was open a law office in Sumter, the seat of South Carolina’s White Citizens Council, and quickly indicated his willingness to collaborate with others, no matter their background or politics.
What he did was endure overt racism and trust that the legal system ultimately would work, that the courts were an appropriate place to take the fight for enfranchisement.
What he did was get elected in 1972 to the S.C. House and serve on the Judiciary Committee. Four years later, he was elected the first black Circuit Court judge, and then, in 1985, the first black Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.
What he did was rise to chief justice in 1994 and work to improve public education in the state.
As one of only two practicing lawyers in the state in the early 1950s, Fields was invited to speak to students at the fledgling S.C. State law school and met his friend for the first time.
One trailblazer watched as another cleared his own fresh trail through the landscape of Southern segregation, then went on to lead the state’s highest court.
“He handled his tenure as chief justice without any controversy,” Fields said admiringly. “He had the utmost respect for the court and Bar.”
None of it was a sure thing, for Finney never had it made.

Born in Smithfield, Va., he lost his mother before uttering his first word and was reared by his educator-father, aunts and uncles. When he was six, he moved to the city: the nation’s capital, then Baltimore. At 12, he came to Orangeburg and his father taught at nearby Denmark Area Trade School, then became dean of Claflin College.
Finney had been told Orangeburg was a rough place, that living there would be tough, he said. His first memory of South Carolina is of the train ride that brought him here, the change-over in Florence and the river, perhaps it was the Great Pee Dee, that ran high along its banks. He graduated from Wilkinson High School and enrolled in Claflin. His first job was a soda jerk at the college store.
Finney’s father was strict and kept his son on a straight and narrow path.
“Dad always wanted me to be a lawyer,” Finney said. “What the old man said was gospel.”
In the 1940s and early 1950s, the fight for civil rights had not yet reached its “heroic phase” — that would begin with the outlawing of segregation in 1954 and last until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — but there were many battles, large and small, throughout the South, many figureheads galvanizing communities and arguing for justice.
Much of this activity ended up in courtrooms. Briggs v. Elliott, decided in 1952, was one such case, and the young Ernest Finney paid it close attention. The plaintiffs argued for “equalization.” They wanted the state to improve the school facilities and provide bus service. The Briggs case would become the first of five consolidated by the U.S. Supreme Court into Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation unconstitutional.
In Washington, the young Finney was impressed by the lawyer, successful black men, and wanted to emulate them.
He graduated from S.C. State College law school in 1954, the same year of the Brown decision. The law school for blacks was established because the University of South Carolina would not admit them. Finney passed the Bar exam in 1955, but could not immediately practice law because of Jim Crow’s desperate last howls. So he waited tables at the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, serving white lawyers his same age.
He had a family to take care of,” his daughter Nikky Finney said. “He put pride aside and had to wait until that time in South Carolina had passed.”

Family. That required patience and something of a fight, too. Finney set eyes on Frances Davenport when she was a freshman at Claflin, fresh off her family farm in Newberry. Every evening, students would congregate in the canteen, and every evening there was Finney, waiting to see Frances.
“I want to introduce you,” her roommate said.
No, no, no. She was not interested in meeting anyone. Besides this lawyer-to-be intimidated her.
“I had no confidence in myself,” she said. “He looked me up and down, made me feel so little and insignificant.”
But it was admiration, not condescension, which spurred him on. After a couple of months, Frances agreed to a date. He wrote her many love letters. He insisted she graduate in three years so they could be married and continue on with their lives together. She did.
Frances Finney became a school teacher. Finney launched a legal career. Three children came along, two boys and Nikky, the youngest, the artist, the rebel. The parents taught their children manners and selflessness, how to look out onto a complicated world and make some sense of it, Nikky Finney said.
When Ernest Finney received a call from one of the Friendship College students, he took on the case, embracing the challenge. When the students insisted on “jail, no bail,” Finney thought they were crazy.
“They had made up their mind, and I was not going to stand in their way,” he said.
The episode made a lasting impact on the civil rights movement as a whole, influencing many activists, especially those involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Nikky Finney said it was a moment when two parts of the movement came together — members of the legal community and others considered part of the old guard, and young radicals. Some still believed the system would work, but many young activists were agitating for change in the streets, challenging, taunting the system, daring it to do the right thing.
“I was always concerned about these young people,” Ernest Finney said. “I didn’t want them to fail,” neither in school nor in the movement.
He also never abandoned his faith in the system.
“I always had a desire to be a politician,” he said. “I wanted to be part of the structure that made the decisions.”
And so he was. Years later, already an experienced state legislator, Finney ran for U.S. Congress but lost. Attorney General Robert Kennedy invited him to join the Justice Department staff, but Finney declined.
“I thought my struggle was here,” he said.

Nikky Finney, instead, came of age outside the system. She is a child of the black arts movement, a protégée of Nikki Giovanni (whose name Finney adopted as her own in tribute). She learned her history and it made her mad, it made her want to write. The work of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation is essential, she said.
“Without land, anybody can come and tell you to leave.”
Ownership is key. And retaining property is increasingly difficult. Gentrification is taxing people off their land, she said. The prospect of making a lot of money quickly has convinced some to sell, sometimes undercutting siblings who might have as much claim to the property as the seller.
This happens because deeds are missing, or never existed in the first place. This happens because of economic pressure. This happens because life along the coast isn’t always easy.
“And God ain’t making no more land,” Nikky Finney said.
Ernest and Frances Finney now live comfortably in the outskirts of Columbia. Their children are thriving. Chip is a solicitor in Sumter; Jerry is an attorney in Columbia. The two sons are following a path first trod by their father.
Nikky writes. Her recent volume, “Head Off & Split,” won the 2011 National Book Award for poetry. Last year, she returned to her home state to assume a teaching post at the University of South Carolina and to be closer to her parents.
The Finney parents learned as they went along, and knew enough to expose their children to the wider world and the magical realm of ideas. They did not determine their children’s careers; they opened their minds.
“We want all of you to be whatever you want to be,” Ernest Finney told them. “Just be the best.”

[Note: A shortened version of this story ran in The Post and Courier on Sunday, March 16, 2014.]

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Woe to thee, CofC


It has become a farce. What a pity.
The College of Charleston is a respectable institution of higher learning located in a vibrant city that is on the cusp of a new era. The city is set to thrive, so long as good choices are made about livability, stewardship and economic development. It could stand to gain from a robust college playing a central role in its economic and cultural life.
And the College of Charleston is in a position to deliver. Its 10,000+ students pay a lot, to be sure, but they get a decent liberal arts education and options to pursue coursework in business, science, math, music, political science, visual arts, cultural studies, arts management, languages and more. As I have pointed out in a previous post, some of the school’s programs are excellent; others could be improved. And the College certainly needs to build upon its academic offerings by adding master and doctorate degree programs, for which it would require a willing General Assembly.
Unfortunately, College faculty and staff are distracted right now. They are caught up in a two-pronged dispute about whether to merge with the Medical University (the vast majority of faculty and staff at both institutions are opposed to this, even as some politicians and business leaders continue to push for it) and about whom the next president will be.
Whoever the next president will be—whether it’s business leader and College of Charleston Foundation board member Jody Encarnation, University of West Florida provost Martha Saunders, or South Carolina lieutenant governor Glenn McConnell—he or she will have to deal with this merger issue, and with a level of morale that is probably the lowest it has ever been.
Few among the faculty are enthusiastic about any of the candidates, about the prospect of a merger or about the immediate future of the College. Some, I’ve heard, wish the search would presently cease and a new effort begin from scratch. Two of the three candidates have little or no academic experience. But, to be fair, that should not necessarily be a major impediment. As Alex Sanders reminded me recently, the College had seven presidents during the 20th century, four academics and three non-academics. Of the academics, only one, the mathematician Harrison Randolph, improved the school. Two others, Walter Coppedge and Edward Collins Jr., were soon forgotten, and another, George Grice, nearly destroyed the place, in part by resisting integration. The most progress was made under non-academics: Harry Lightsey Jr., Ted Stern and Sanders himself. Leo Higdon, president from 2001 to 2006, was a former Wall Street executive.
So a little perspective is surely wanting in the current presidential dispute, and it is unlikely the search will be cancelled, not after all this time, money and effort have been spent. One of the three candidates is almost certain to assume the helm of the College.
Protestors on campus are rightly drawing attention to McConnell’s Confederate sympathies with the hope of scuttling his candidacy. They might succeed, but then they could be faced with one of those careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios: of the three, McConnell  might be the most likely to defend the liberal arts emphasis of the school, back opponents of the merger and work toward a more rational approach to growth and change. Encarnation is a businessman with a Boeing contract and, one might surmise, a somewhat myopic view of what academia is all about. Saunders could turn out to be good, or she could be someone who likes to improve the physical plant and sports teams.
Should McConnell assume the presidency, the College can look forward to consequences. Despite his stated record of promoting diversity, McConnell is defined in part by his interest in honoring the past. He is a backward-looking fellow intent on re-enacting the Civil War and paying tribute to the heritage of the South—which means the white heritage of the South since it is wholly inappropriate to “pay tribute” to slavery. He insists he is simply striving to remember the antebellum past in all its dimensions but fails to appreciate why this effort might offend the portion of the population that endured an erasure of identity, the stripping of their humanity, the flaying of their flesh and the forced abbreviation of their lives so that Charleston’s economic system might provide for their masters.
A college president, by definition, should be forward-looking, open-minded, interested not only in diversity for political reasons but for cultural and moral reasons. If McConnell becomes a college president, it will hardly be the first time a politician assumed that role. But the main reasons to put a politician into that position are two: because he is a consummate fundraiser, adept at collecting very large sums from donors, and/or he is well-connected to powerful legislators who can be convinced to boost funding and provide other forms of essential support.
McConnell did raise “millions” to preserve the H.L. Hunley Confederate submarine, but one big project a track record does not make. It remains unclear whether he can raise millions and millions and millions more on behalf of the College. As for powerful connections, McConnell surely has a few, but they have made it very clear that they’re not interested in allocating a lot of money to higher education. So his influence among lawmakers is not likely to amount to much. Perhaps he can tell them to bug off next time an assigned book is deemed pornographic by legislative prudes, and perhaps they will abide him. One can hope.
Finally, with that Confederate flag figuratively wrapped around his shoulders, McConnell is not likely to garner much admiration from his peers at other institutions around the country, or from certain prospective students, including black students, who are looking not only for a decent school to attend, but for a better future that includes mutual respect and understanding among an increasingly diverse population. Perhaps the Board of Trustees appreciates this dilemma now that the NAACP has begun to protest and now that someone on campus draped a large banner at the president’s residence that showed the ol’ battle flag with the circle-backslash symbol overlaid upon it, and this text: “No Confederates for CofC President.”
But then who? And here is why the search for a new president has become a farce, exacerbated by the outgoing president’s insistence on a merger with MUSC and by pressure from legislators applied to trustees who themselves are political appointees. The process is unraveling. The faculty smells something fishy. Only one of the top five candidates the search committee recommended to the trustees is among the three finalists. The College received more than 100 applications for the post. This is the best they could come up with?
So perhaps McConnell will get his coveted job after all. And maybe he will prove a capable (if “heritage”-obsessed) leader of an academic institution in great need of renovation. Possibly the consultant Encarnation will assume the presidency and point the College in a more practical direction, encouraging the sort of education that produces the next generation of employees. Or Saunders will step in and put her experiences in academia to work. Abundantly clear: All three candidates, who are in their 60s, view the College presidency as their final post before a comfortable, tax-payer-assisted retirement. The winner stands to benefit regardless of what he or she accomplishes on campus.
But what will become of the College of Charleston? What of its shortcomings? What of its potential? What of its disempowered faculty? What of its role in the community? Will the farce continue?

Adam Parker is a journalist, an advocate for the humanities and the husband of a College of Charleston professor.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Merger musings IV


Now that the debate over the proposed College of Charleston-Medical University merger has matured a bit, a few concerns—some strident, some nuanced—have risen to the surface, along with what, to me, is a harsh reality check.
In my last post, I wrote that I thought it was time for the College to consider privatization. It might not be a welcomed option by some, nor easy, but it’s the only way to get a meddling Legislature off the school’s back and out of its business. The state of South Carolina consistently has been cutting its funding of higher education, and its contribution to the College’s annual budget now is less than 10 percent. With some effort, that money could be substituted, or the budget could be adjusted to make state largess irrelevant.
The big challenge of going private is how to transfer ownership and stewardship of all the property from the state to the College. This is an expensive proposition, but I believe it is possible to negotiate a deal with the state whereby it relinquishes the property without charging the College market value for it, and agrees to a long-term arrangement that includes tax breaks and other favorable financial terms. The state has no use for the buildings currently occupied by College students, faculty and administrators, and the College could mitigate any new financial obligations by claiming the property as a valuable asset. Suddenly it would have equity, and that, in turn, would present new budgetary opportunities.
Privatization is not an ideal solution. If I could wave a magic wand, I would point it at Columbia and get the General Assembly to quit all its shenanigans over guns and gays and properly fund higher education while at the same time providing it the respect it deserves. The presumptuous politicking of certain legislators who think they and not college professors know what’s best for students is embarrassing. But let’s be honest: Saul ain’t gonna become Paul anytime soon.
In response to my suggestion that the College should explore the privatization option, a friend and respected educator in the state called me to dissent. The thrust of his argument against privatization was economic. The pot of money everyone competes for is not big enough, he said. Other private schools in the state already are struggling. I pointed out that by rejecting this course of action, no good options are left. A merger is bad for a lot of reasons both obvious and hard to quantify, we agreed. The status quo surely is unacceptable. Getting more and better support from the General Assembly for current College operations is virtually impossible. And institutional expansion is a road so bumpy and expensive, it too might be unattainable in the short term.
So what’s left to do? My friend said: It might not be easy, it might take a while, but we have to replace current lawmakers with progressive people who care about the liberal arts and economic development and academic freedom and the advantages of public education, new elected officials who will restore funding with few or no strings attached, who will trust the professional, trained educators to do their jobs. What we need to do, my friend insisted, is get organized, engage in difficult debate, highlight the states failures and successes and inspire a new generation of forward-thinking people to step up and push out the hacks currently running the show in it the state capital.
It’s the sort of rallying cry that can get the blood flowing faster. For a while. I thought about this a little, and my pulse quickly returned to its normal, slower rate, for I realized that such an overhaul is highly unlikely. I hate to admit it, but the electoral system in South Carolina is designed to promote nepotism and mediocrity. The Legislature is populated by part-time lawmakers who either have enough wealth to afford a few years of the game, or by people who hold down regular jobs and layer on legislating. Elected officials are paid but a token salary, far from enough to live on. And they benefit from the existing good-ol’-boy system that rewards intransigence more than incremental change.
Constitutional carry? Creationism in the science classroom? “Promoting the lesbian lifestyle”? Really? These are the concerns of lawmakers today? They won’t even institute ethics reforms properly. What makes us think they would vote for a wholesale renovation of state politics? They stand to lose too much. Voters might succeed here and there in replacing a particularly harmful legislator with someone else, but it is not likely enough can be replaced to make a substantive difference in the way the state operates, especially concerning education. The system is corrupt, and the electorate is ill-prepared, easily distracted, busy trying to survive. So where does that leave us?
It is evident that the College of Charleston needs to reform. But how? Some among the anti-merger faculty have argued that the College must enforce its undergraduate emphasis and limit its graduate-level and post-graduate offerings. They claim that any Ph.D programs introduced would be merely adequate or worse since professors already are spread too thin. They point out that faculty are generally undercompensated today and often must teach three or four courses a semester, making research activities difficult. Why should they take on Ph.D students under these circumstances, without pay raises, undergraduate course reductions, and better research opportunities? And should those things come to pass, the skeptics worry that undergraduates will get short shrift. Tenured professors will spend more time with upper-level students, leaving the younger ones to adjuncts and lecturers.
Another assertion I’ve heard used to argue against developing Ph.D and post-doc programs at the College is one of supply and demand. There are too many graduates with advanced degrees and not enough jobs for them to fill, not in industry and certainly not in academia. While there is some truth to this (tenure-track university jobs are scarcer than ever), it is an overly simplistic assessment. As a professor-friend told me, post-doc positions typically are well paid; they are jobs. But they are not counted as jobs when employment figures are calculated, giving the illusion of severe underemployment in proportion to degree-holders. Additionally, we all know that the more education one gets, the better. Bachelor degrees are not usually sufficient for many professional positions. Even master degrees may not be enough anymore. It is self-defeating and contradictory to argue that universities should grant fewer advanced degrees because jobs are hard to find. Extending this logic leads to a black hole: Why bother getting a high school diploma, then? Why attend elementary school? The statistics show that the better educated you are, the more valuable you will become and the more money you will earn.
Another professor told me recently about a particularly talented math student who was clearly Ph.D material but unable to advance her education at the College. A mother of three, she could not leave Charleston to attend another school. After much finagling, the professor helped to arrange for her student to enroll at MUSC where she could pursue her subject but also was required to take biology and other science courses that had little or nothing to do with her interests or abilities. She did so anyway because she was brilliant and determined, but the experience certainly highlighted the College’s shortcomings.
The concerns raised by some of the faculty skeptics at the College surely are legitimate, but they should not stop a healthy debate over expanding the College’s graduate-level degree offerings, improving its programs and curriculum, strengthening its hiring and tenure requirements, offering more competitive salaries and making a number of other adjustments. And maybe one day it will make more sense to support some kind of institutional merger. Such change is a good idea not only because it would better serve students and provide new opportunities for faculty, but because the College’s well-being depends on it. Without the right kind of controlled growth and academic improvement (along with a visionary and capable leadership), the status of the College will slip; it will become less competitive, less able to attract quality students or prepare the ones it has for an uncertain future.
Currently, the College cannot issue Ph.D degrees because of legislative restrictions. A consortium called the Lowcountry Graduate Center—a collaboration between the College, The Citadel and MUSC—was established in 2001 “to expand the opportunities for graduate education.” Languishing, it offers very little now, only a couple of masters programs. The concept might be a good one, by its implementation has failed. Still, if adding graduate programs is deemed so essential, then a mechanism already exists that might be strengthened through new funding initiatives and reorganization. The remaining options for facilitating expansion are: (a) convince the General Assembly to change the rules, permitting the College to develop Ph.D and post-doc programs, or (b) sever the link with the state altogether—in other words, privatize.
Throwing the anti-intellectual bums out of the Statehouse is an invigorating idea, but not likely to succeed enough to change the cultural concerns and political priorities of our lawmakers, certainly not in the short-term. Merging with MUSC, at least at this stage, is broadly rejected by all but a few politicians and business leaders, and for good reason: it doesn’t make much sense. Mayor Joe Riley is only the latest to argue that a comprehensive research institution (Charleston University) is needed to generate employees who can support the needs of new industries and to create more area jobs. The presumption is that properly qualified graduates will stick around and help our local economy flower. Riley cites models: Duke, Harvard, Emory and the University of Virginia. Someone should show me the numbers. In my experience, its the research institution itself that employs the most Ph.D-carrying workers, especially in small and medium-sized communities. Many graduates of Emory are likely to find jobs nearby because nearby is a huge metropolitan area called Atlanta. Same goes for Harvard, which sits adjacent to Boston. Duke is nestled in North Carolina’s flourishing Research Triangle. But most graduates of, say, the University of Michigan, don’t stay in Ann Arbor. How many Penn State grads remain in College Station? How many Princeton grads find jobs in South Jersey?
The Charleston area is changing, growing, adding to certain industries besides hospitality and tourism, and this is good. The ability to grant more Ph.Ds is necessary. As a community we should be prepared for what the 21st century throws at us. We need engineers to build a sea wall, for example. We need writers and critics to serve as watchdogs. We need people well-versed in the latest technologies as well as the earliest histories. We need smarter politicians. (Idea: Since Ph.Ds are suddenly considered so important by politicians, let’s require all elected officials to possess one in something, anything.)
Keeping things the way they are won’t solve some very pressing problems. So, what then? What will the College do? Allow politicians to dictate its future, or take the bull by the horns?

Adam Parker is a journalist, advocate for the humanities and husband of a College of Charleston professor.