My recent experience running for a seat on the MUSC Board of Trustees provided me an unabashed view behind the curtain of our state's Legislature. The South Carolina General Assembly is responsible for electing the members of the state's university boards, and after going through the process as a candidate, it became clear that internal relationships are given more weight in the election than merit of the candidate. This led to my discovery of flaws and bias with a clear and immediate need for change.
On May 1, I received 17 out of a possible 158 votes for the seat. While I'm very appreciative of the support, the small percentage validated what I was told as soon as I decided to run — I was on an impossible quest. I was competing for the seat against the brother of a sitting representative. In fact, too many of the candidates were either former legislators themselves or related to a legislator, proving the existence of an inner circle with legislative pressure and trading of votes.
My business experience, work with nonprofits and more than four decades of service and support to MUSC assured my qualifications for the seat on the MUSC Board. As I began the process of running for the board seat, it was evident that qualifications were not enough. I was asked to “come to Columbia and get to know us.” As I did this, I was told there was no way I could get to know as many people as the candidate that I was competing against — a representative's brother.
As the election drew closer, I was pressured to drop out of the race, as were other candidates, in order to avoid a vote in the General Assembly. I was encouraged not to press the issue, but with so much on the line for future candidates with a desire to serve, I was compelled to shed light on these issues. There are many great leaders in our communities who are committed to serving our state institutions. It's my goal to ensure that board positions do not simply turn into another political race, but are instead rewarded on the merits and qualifications of the candidate, and most importantly the needs of the institution.
Beyond the internal pressures to vote in one direction, there is a complete disregard for the lack of diversity on university boards. At the time of the election, the MUSC Board of Trustees was comprised of only male members. State law cites that the General Assembly should strive to assure that the membership of the board is representative of all citizens of the state of South Carolina. With women making up 51 percent of the state's population (and 61 percent of the MUSC student body), it should be a goal to have qualified women on the board. This should have worked significantly in my favor, but it wasn't even a consideration.
My purpose in writing this is to challenge the S.C. General Assembly to adopt a truly transparent process, eliminating any question of nepotism, cronyism or discrimination. This would call for no relatives of legislators or legislators themselves to be able to run until they have been away from the General Assembly for a minimum of two years. This would also include safeguards to prevent undue influence on the election process.
My experience is a common one for the 87 candidates in the recent election of trustees to the boards of South Carolina colleges and universities. The role of the General Assembly should be to elect the best candidates for these positions in order to maintain the integrity of these institutions. I hope that those involved with this process learn from the issues raised and strive to improve this for the good of the board and the institution they are elected to serve.
I believe that reform can come quickly and easily if our South Carolina elected officials have the will to make it happen.
Susan Pearlstine is a businesswoman and philanthropist. She lives in Charleston.