COLUMBIA - It's not an easy time to be a governing board member at the College of Charleston.
Lawmakers want to punish the school for the selection of last year's summer reading book "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic." The book choice also contributed to the ouster of one of the college's board members, Daniel Ravenel. And trustees also have been criticized for their selection of incoming president Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, when many faculty and students wanted someone with an academic background.
If Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, had his way, two students at C of C would also be an official part of the trustees' debate. He introduced a bill recently that would place two members of the student body on the board at C of C and other South Carolina public schools.
He said the bill is unrelated to the uproar at College of Charleston but points out the need for students' voices to be heard. "The most important stakeholder on any campus is the student body," Sellers said. "It's apparent their opinion isn't being heard. When consternation happens it breeds good law."
Sellers, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said the bill is a part of a series of initiatives to involve the millennial generation in public affairs.
The bill is unlikely to go anywhere this year. But Sellers and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, a co-sponsor, hope to start the debate.
"They have a right to at least have a voice," Stavrinakis said.
Not all agree. Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said students are not ready for such responsibility and there are other ways they can convey their opinions.
"If they want to have them in a non-voting capacity and come in and give input, that would be a perfectly sound way of providing input," Merrill said. "Generally, I'm not sure that 19- or 20-year-old students are prepared to lead a couple hundred million dollar enterprise."
It is relatively common to have students on governing boards, although schools vary on whether the students are voting members. About 70 percent of public institution boards nationwide include one or more students, according to the Association of Governing Board of Universities and Colleges. The organization said, however, that student members have inherent conflicts of interest.
"For example, since boards have the final say on student tuition, how can they ethically vote on tuition issues if their student members are directly affected by board decisions?" the association says on its website.
Students at schools across the state, including the College of Charleston, were receptive to the idea.
Ryan Spraker, student body president at the College of Charleston, said he supports the bill. "I think it's important to have students inside the decision-making process," he said.
And it's especially important to have student representation on the Board of Trustees, he said, "because it's the highest authority at the college."
Seven former student body presidents at C of C also released a statement supporting the bill. Their action was prompted by the board's controversial hiring of McConnell as the school's next president.
"The leader of the student body should be allowed an active and involved voice in the Trustees' executive session and have the power to vote," the statement said. "The Board cannot continue to make decisions that they feel are best for the students without having a student representative actively engaged in the decision-making process."
Convincing a broader array of lawmakers may prove difficult.
"I don't think its a good idea," Merrill said. "They have a student government president. They certainly seem like they were able to voice their opinions pretty well."
Staff writer Diane Knich contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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