Chief Diversity Officer, Clemson University
On the first day of first grade, Lee Gill stood sobbing at a classroom window.
He watched his mom drive away after dropping him off at his elementary school in South Bend, Indiana. He felt alone and scared to death.
“I was with all these folks, many who looked different from me,” Gill recalled. “I grew up in my homogeneous cocoon in our African American community. This was a situation I had never experienced.”
A single instant changed things. A white teacher put her arms around the sad little 6-year-old and gave him a warm hug.
“She told me she loved me,” he remembered. “She showed me she cared for me. That day was the beginning of my educational trajectory.”
That trajectory has been astonishing. After earning a degree from the University of Michigan, Gill has excelled as an educational consultant, as associate vice president for inclusion and equity at The University of Akron, and today as chief diversity officer at Clemson University.
Building from the same educational equity vision as Teach For America, Gill created a powerful empowerment program for minority males at Akron that boosted graduation rates. When he came to Clemson in 2016, he reimagined and expanded that program to create the Clemson University Men of Color National Summit. The annual event attracts 2,400 high school and college students, business professionals, educators, government officials, and community leaders from 27 states and abroad.
“Our mission is to close the opportunity gap for African American and Hispanic males, from cradle to career,” he said. “We explore education methods, best practices, and ways to improve graduation rates. We are making a difference by adding to the diversity of workforce development in South Carolina.”
For Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC), Gill represents a friend in high places. An important early project after he joined Clemson involved a diversity audit of every Charleston school, closely acquainting him with education system leaders. That network makes Gill a rich source of contacts for TFASC.
He also fosters important relationships for TFASC at Clemson. One of his first handshakes after joining the university was with former TFASC Founding Executive Director Josh Bell. The men became “fast friends,” said Gill.
“I was the first Black student body president at Michigan,” he laughed. “Josh was a past student body president at Clemson. We like to reminisce.”
Gill introduced Bell and his successor, TFASC Executive Director Troy Evans, to Clemson faculty, staff, and administrators, and Gill worked closely with Evans to pave the way for TFASC’s Upstate Expansion Initiative, which serves more students and provides greater teacher placement options in the region.
Additionally, one of Gill’s assistant vice presidents, Julio Hernandez, sits on TFASC’s advisory board, and TFASC has welcomed teacher volunteers from Clemson.
Gill sees a unique challenge – and an unmatched opportunity – in his current role.
“I came here with the intention of working to make Clemson one of the top-tier universities in diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “What better place than at a Southern institution to take on that challenge?”
“Clemson was the first university in South Carolina to desegregate. It’s in our DNA to be a leader in this state where there’s work to be done.”