Winthrop University’s top academic prize will no longer bear the name of a controversial former governor.
University President Dan Mahony announced in an email to faculty on Friday the university will discontinue the 75-year-old Tillman Award, named for former S.C. Gov. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Instead, the students with the highest GPA at this fall’s graduation ceremony will receive a President's Award for Academic Excellence.
The decision removes one of the school’s ties to a man who helped found Winthrop but has also become a lightning rod for controversy in South Carolina’s history. But the decision was presented to the university board more as a question of funding than anything else – school administrators say there’s just no money available to continue the Tillman Award.
“There was an amount of money given with it that ran down 30 years ago,” Mahony said, but the university continued to pay for the award out of other funds until this past spring.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“I dealt with similar issues at Kent (State University in Ohio, where Mahony was a dean), where the school felt an obligation to continue with something even if there wasn’t money available for it any longer.”
Mahony said Tillman didn’t specifically come up when the board discussed the award in October, since it is one of several unfunded awards Winthrop hopes to do away with. But the decision is likely to reignite discussion about Tillman Hall, the campus’s main administration building that bears the governor’s name.
Tillman was South Carolina’s governor from 1890 to 1894 and a U.S. senator from 1895 until his death in 1918. A champion of poor, white farmers, he was instrumental in founding Clemson University and establishing Winthrop College as a teaching school for women.
But Tillman was also famous for his violent rhetoric against the state’s black population. He supported lynch mobs and personally boasted of killing blacks. He was instrumental in adopting the state’s current constitution in 1895, which at the time effectively removed any political power blacks had gained since the Civil War.
Winthrop has one of the most diverse student bodies among state universities in South Carolina, where almost a third of the undergraduates are African-American and some two-fifths of students identify as nonwhite.
Mike Fortune was one of two students who asked the Winthrop board last year to consider changing the name of Tillman Hall, upset that the former Main Hall was renamed in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement. School officials have said South Carolina’s Heritage Act won’t allow them to change the name back without legislative approval, but Fortune believes Winthrop could get away with changing the name on its own.
“Do you think the cops are going to come down there and arrest you?” Fortune said. “You could do it if you were courageous, but they’re not.”
Fortune said he still meets Winthrop students who have no idea who Tillman was, but he believes the desire to rename the building is growing, citing two incidents over the summer. In July, a portrait of Tillman inside the administration building was defaced with the words “violent racist,” while in August the exterior of the building was vandalized on the day of the fall convocation.
Mahony says a “campus heritage group” made up of faculty, staff, students and alumni continues to work with the board on ways to handle Winthrop’s institutional legacy. In the meantime, the president has found other funding for the new president’s award. He and provost Debra Boyd will pay for the award and its monetary prize out of their own pockets, at a cost of around $250 – or more if multiple students earn the top academic ranking in a semester.
“We wanted to continue to recognize the top student,” Mahony said, and keep the focus on them.