An eyewitness to Clemson’s growth in diversity
When Jerry Knighton joined the staff in Clemson’s Office of Access and Equity 22 years ago, he says Clemson was a much different place. There was no Gantt Center for Student Life, no chief diversity officer, no National Coalition Building Institute diversity training, no Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education, and Clemson had never named an African-American dean or had a woman serve as vice president or provost.
Access and equity was the primary office on campus that dealt with diversity issues, and as a new staff member, Knighton said, “It was a good way to get my feet wet working on some very difficult issues.”
Recently named director of access and equity, Knighton said Clemson has come a long way in those 22 years.
“I stand on the backs of my predecessors, Frank Mauldin and Byron Wiley,” he said. “They laid the foundation and left their legacies.”
He hopes to continue to build upon that progress of diversity.
A native of Clinton, Knighton started his career as a Gamecock, having graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in political science in 1979 and a Master of Public Administration in 1983. His first job was with the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation office in Greenville as a disability examiner, but after a little more than a year he took a job as director of economic and community development for the city of Anderson.
In that position, Knighton worked on revitalization projects for low-income neighborhoods and economic development initiatives in downtown Anderson. While in that job, he met Frank Mauldin, the first director of access and equity at Clemson. Mauldin asked if Knighton would consider applying for a position in the office, and so in 1989, Knighton was hired as an assistant project administrator.
The son of two educators — his father was a principal, his mother a teacher — it is no surprise that Knighton ended up with a career in education. He enjoys teaching and works as an adjunct professor at Southern Wesleyan University, where he teaches courses in labor and employee relations and the sociology of work and leisure. At Clemson, he has taught the freshman CU101 course and served as a National Coalition Building Institute diversity trainer and SafeZone trainer. He also has served as a diversity facilitator for the South Carolina Technical College System Leadership Academy.
A 2008 graduate of the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative at Furman University, Knighton says diversity education is an important part of a student’s college career.
“Part of what we’re charged to do as an institution is prepare students for what they will face when they leave here so they can be effective leaders,” Knighton said. “Employers are looking for graduates who have knowledge and experience working with people from different backgrounds.”
Besides education and training, access and equity’s other focus areas are outreach and compliance. Its outreach programs include Emerging Scholars, founded by his predecessor Byron Wiley, which gives students from economically disadvantaged areas an introduction to college life; Look Inside Clemson, which is aimed at recruiting minority graduate students; and the University’s Diversity Procurement Initiative, which promotes using minority-owned businesses and vendors. Knighton has played a hand in developing all of these programs.
Access and equity also handles discrimination complaints and helps ensure that the University is complying with all state and federal laws regarding access and equitable treatment.
“There is a perception that some people just don’t have a voice,” Knighton said. “We give them a voice and address their concerns. Oftentimes, all people want is to be heard.”
Growing up, Knighton saw firsthand the effects of discrimination when his father sued his school district for discrimination.
“I remember that court case and hearing things said about my father that I did not believe were true,” he said. “My father showed me that you do have a right to complain and stand up for what you believe in, even against the odds.”