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Greenville Business Magazine

Dick Riley says education is the backbone of democracy—and business

Dec 07, 2018 09:45AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Leigh Savage

Although Dick Riley was a popular two-term governor and was named one of the top 10 U.S. Cabinet secretaries of all time by Time magazine, after decades of leadership, the former U.S. Secretary of Education still answers his own phone at Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough with a cheerful “Hello.”

That accessibility and friendliness, along with a lifelong passion for education, are among the reasons Riley continues to receive honors and accolades, including the opening of a collection of his papers at the University of South Carolina this summer and a statue that was unveiled in the Peace Center Plaza last month. 

The ever-humble Riley says he is “over-honored, and one reason is that I’ve lived a long time. I’m 85 years old, and so many of my great friends and great lawyers have passed on, but I keep going.”

Of all his accomplishments as governor, it’s the Education Improvement Act of 1984—which used a one-cent sales tax increase to raise student performance and elevate the teaching profession, among other reforms—that he is most proud of. Riley also feels it’s the one accomplishment that brought the most change to the state—not just in schools, but in the business sector as well. 

“People who were interested in doing business in South Carolina were more interested in your commitment to education than in your test scores,” he says. “Well, I was really committed. It was a statewide movement, and so a BMW or a Michelin that came in when I was governor or shortly after, they were interested in that kind of commitment.”

Continuing to focus on education will benefit the state, he says. “Public schools are the backbone of our democracy, and we really ought to support them in a serious way,” he says. “If you’re interested in business in Greenville, that’s the way to support it.”

A Life of Service
After serving in the S.C. House of Representatives and the S.C. Senate, Riley was elected governor in 1978 and re-elected in 1982, the only Democrat to serve two consecutive terms since the constitution was amended to allow consecutive terms. 

Riley then went on to serve in President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet from 1993 to 2001, though he was offered another key position: Supreme Court Justice. He turned down the seat that eventually went to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

“I’ve never been sorry,” Riley says, though his father thought he was “bananas not to do it.” After only one year as Secretary of Education, he had assembled an impressive team and didn’t want to abandon his education goals. He also realized he was a “people person,” who was better suited to working in education than the more solitary position as a judge. 

Riley loved the law, though, and loves it still, going into the office every day and often traveling to Columbia or Washington, D.C. He spends a good bit of time focusing on EducationCounsel, a mission-based education consulting firm that is a subsidiary of Nelson Mullins, where he works with a team of lawyers and policy experts to drive improvement in the U.S. education system. 

He is also actively involved with the Riley Institute, launched in 1999 in his honor at Furman University, his alma mater. “We do a lot of work, including the statewide Diversity Leaders Initiative,” he says. “We have 1,800 leaders that have been through this five-month training in learning how to work together, how to respect other people, and how to appreciate the benefits of diversity.”

That focus on diversity relates directly to both education and business, he says, as people learn to work with others of different races, religions, and cultures. “It might be questioned by some that we’ll always have a global economy and global interests, but not by me,” he says. “The world is very close together, so it’s important for a young person growing up in Greenville to learn to be successful in that world.”

A product of South Carolina’s public schools, Riley has remained a staunch supporter. He points out that 90 percent of children nationwide go to public schools, and insists that’s where government and citizens should focus their attention and support. “If there is good leadership and quality teachers, it’s amazing how business moves in that direction,” he says. “Businesses look at healthcare and safety and other features of a good business climate, but education, I think, is No. 1.”

Greenville County is implementing many effective strategies to improve education, he says, including New Tech Network schools that focus on project-based learning and STEM and STEAM-focused schools that train students to work in fields like manufacturing and technology. 

Higher education should be available to everyone, he says, be it universities, community colleges, or technical training. Another key area of improvement should be teacher recruitment, he says. “Greenville is having a very difficult time getting teachers in the classroom who are qualified,” he says. “That’s a real need across the whole state.” Increasing teacher pay and adding other benefits are the key to offering teachers a professional life commensurate with their responsibilities. 

Despite this issue, Greenville County is in a great position, Riley says, with a strong educational leader in Burke Royster and a school board that typically works together to solve problems. He also lauds the current city and county decision-makers who are creating policies that attract and support business. “I connect it up with education,” he says. “If you have strong education, you have strong business.”