In life, as in basketball, a well called timeout can be very beneficial. It allows a team to reset, refocus and plan their next move.
The University of South Carolina board of trustees realized that last week, and called a good timeout. Rather than proceed with selecting the school’s new president amid a growing wave of criticism about the finalists, the selection process and the board itself, the trustees decided a sideline huddle was in order.
It was a good move, especially so with the accompanying action of naming an interim president, current USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly. Simply announcing a delay of the selection process without putting someone in charge in the meantime would have just stirred the pot, producing weekly protests, pressure and political rhetoric (from all sides).
Conversely, putting someone in the position of president on a temporary basis both lowers the temperature and creates breathing room for the board to analyze what went wrong with the search and what to do about it as they try again.
So what will the board do?
I guarantee you they’ll name at least one female finalist next time, having learned the lesson from the first go-round that those in their position at a public university have simply got to wake up. This is 2019, not 1920.
As someone who has worked in the public relations field with both government agencies and private companies for decades, I was stunned at the social/political tone deafness of the board of trustees in this matter.
While I don’t know whether the board does not receive good public relations advice or does not heed it, either way the result was predictable. And avoidable. Making sure the finalist list was more diverse should have been obvious and should not have been difficult.
While that certainly doesn’t mean you eliminate white male candidates, it does mean you don’t accept a search process that fails to identify female and minority candidates. And if that means reaching out and recruiting such candidates, that’s what you do. If we can expend the effort we do recruiting athletes, why can’t that apply to academic leaders as well?
In the end, the board of trustees should pick whomever it feels is the best and strongest available candidate, regardless of race and gender. If that candidate is a white male, so be it and good for him. No doubt he worked very hard to get in that position.
But frankly, if two candidates are considered equally qualified and one is male and one female, I would pick the female. The same is true if one is white and one minority, I would pick the minority.
Why? Because it’s time. Past time.
And I don’t mean that just in a philosophical sense, but also in a “why are we always late/last” sense as well.
For example, the three major public universities in our neighbor to the north have already had female chancellors (presidents). Indeed, NC State University named Dr. Mayre Ann Fox to lead that school over two decades ago (1998), while UNC-Chapel Hill tapped Dr. Carol Folt for its top job in 2013. Dr. Sheri Everts, chancellor at Appalachian State University, has served in that position since 2014.
By contrast, here in South Carolina no woman has ever been named president of USC, Clemson or the College of Charleston.
Of course, both Carolinas (and lots of other states) have failed to name a minority to lead their major universities, something for the USC board to keep in mind as well during the new search process.
As an aside, one of the original finalists for the job has already withdrawn his name from further consideration, and I don’t blame him. I found the attacks on former West Point superintendent Robert Caslen by some student groups to be both morally wrong and factually inaccurate. His comments about binge drinking and its relationship to sexual assault were clearly not victim-blaming, and I urge you to read them and decide for yourself.
Finally, this is not a call to name a woman or minority to be president of USC just to do so. But it is a call for the board of trustees to make the most of that good timeout it called by finding a winner, whatever their race or gender.
Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.