The Riley Institute Celebrates its 20th Anniversary

By: Evan Myers, News Editor

In 1954, Richard Riley graduated cum laude from Furman University. From 1963 to 1966, Riley served in the South Carolina House of Representatives, and then from 1967 to 1977 he served in the South Carolina Senate. He was elected governor of South Carolina in 1978. In 1993, after rejecting a Supreme Court appointment, Riley was selected to be Secretary of Education during the Clinton Administration.  Finally, in 1999—nearly 45 years after he left—Riley returned to his alma mater to help found the Richard W. Riley Institute of Government, Politics and Public Leadership.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Riley Institute, marking two decades of leadership, knowledge, and impact. On Tuesday, September 17, I had the chance to sit down with Jill Fuson, Director of the Center for Critical Issues, and Don Gordon, the best (and only) Executive Director the Riley Institute has ever known. Today, they explained, the Riley Institute has a “broader and more far-reaching impact than most students realize.” After 20 years, this impact is both comprehensive and profound. 

Today, the Riley Institute operates three centers, each with their own focus and role. First, the Center for Education Policy and Leadership—which Gordon described as “the part (students) don’t see”—focuses on discussing, promoting, and putting research-based best practices in education policy into action. Currently the center, which was established in 2005 on the principle that every child in South Carolina should have access to a quality public education, manages a model program for new-tech schools and performs research on the success of Montessori schools in South Carolina and around the country. 

The Riley Institute also runs the Center for Diversity Strategies, which prides itself on breaking down the “isms that have held society back,” says Gordon. Launched in 2003, the center’s flagship program, the Diversity Leadership Initiative (DLI), empowers people with the skills to lead efficiently in an increasingly diverse world. Moreover, DLI participants work together to execute “community action projects” that help address real problems in their communities. Today, the initiative has more than 2,200 alumni and 160 community action projects scattered throughout South Carolina. “Cumulatively,” said Fuson, “that is a tremendous impact.”

Twenty years ago, in 1999, when Riley and Gordon were conceiving a vision for the Riley Institute, they noticed that “a lot of students were studying abroad and doing internships,” explained Gordon, “but a lot of students weren’t.” Thus, they founded the Riley Institute with a mission of “bringing the world” to Furman and the Upstate Community. Today, the Center for Critical Issues fulfills this original vision by bringing politicians, policy experts, and professors from around the world to speak on Furman’s campus. Among the 800 panelists, presidents and prime ministers that the Riley Institute has hosted, some of the most notable include President Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Todd, and David Petraeus. Fuson says that—besides “standing backstage with President Clinton”—what she enjoys most about her role as director of the Center for Critical Issues is providing people with a platform to have “impactful conversations” about today’s most pressing issues. 

Most recently, Riley held a “Straight Talk” series on nationalism in the United States and Europe. Clearly a controversial topic, Gordon stood strong, saying that the Riley Institute is “not afraid to take on controversial issues and speak truth to power.” The series hosted guests such as Derek Black, former white nationalist turned anti-racism advocate, and Eric Kauffman, a professor of politics at Birkbeck University of London. An attempt to “marry the academic with the practitioner,” Fuson says, the series was well-received and every event was nearly sold out.

Moving forward into the next twenty years, the Riley Institute intends to continue to model “principled leadership”—this year’s theme—through non-partisan and data-based research, promoting diversity and hosting impactful events for the Furman and Upstates communities. 

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