Interim board a risk for S.C. State

COLUMBIA — If state lawmakers try to replace S.C. State University’s board with interim trustees, accreditation of the troubled school could be in jeopardy, the university’s accrediting commission said this week.

Meanwhile, S.C. State confirmed Thursday that another board member, Lancelot Wright, stepped down this week. Wright is the third board member to resign in recent weeks.

The president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges — S.C. State’s accrediting agency — said a bill before the Legislature that would create an interim board doesn’t meet the group’s standards.

“I respect the fact that the university is dealing with many leadership challenges; however, I would hope that the Legislature would take our standards into consideration when writing their legislation and not put the university’s accreditation in any danger as a result of it,” Belle Wheelan said.

At issue is an amendment by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, that was added to fellow Orangeburg Democratic Rep. Jerry Govan’s bill before it passed the House last month.

While Govan’s original bill proposed removing the entire board and having lawmakers elect new trustees by June 30, Cobb-Hunter’s amendment altered the bill so that current trustees would be replaced by an interim seven-member board.

Under the amended bill, three members would be selected by the speaker of the House of Representatives, three by the president pro tem of the Senate, and one by the governor.

The measure has passed the House but the Senate Education Committee has taken no action on it.

Bringing in an experienced, qualified interim board would allow some of the school’s central problems to be addressed before a permanent board is elected, Cobb-Hunter has said.

S.C. State has faced major issues in recent months, including the firing of eight high-level employees, the resignation of its president and its trustee chairman, and an unspecified criminal investigation.

Govan had warned that Cobb-Hunter’s amendment would threaten S.C. State’s accreditation, and he contacted SACS to gauge the commission’s feelings on the measure.

Wheelan responded to him in a May 14 letter released Thursday.

Wheelan said there is nothing in the amended bill that aligns with SACS accreditation standards that require each school to have a policy that describes the process and grounds on which board members may be dismissed.

“Should this legislation pass, it might very well open the door to scrutiny of all institutions in South Carolina accredited by the commission,” Wheelan said.

She said another issue with the bill is a directive that instructs the interim board upon its inception to terminate the sitting president.

SACS standards call for the governing board to be free from undue political influence, and the directive could put S.C. State out of compliance, Wheelan said.

Govan and Orangeburg Democratic Sen. John Matthews said the Legislature should tread carefully, given SACS’ concerns.

“If we can’t make the appropriate changes to it, then certainly it wouldn’t be worth risking the accreditation of the school,” Govan said. “The most important thing we need to consider is the survival of the institution and the students that are there.”

Govan said legislative changes to the university’s leadership structure may have to wait until next year because the bill waiting in the Senate committee appears to be the only restructuring bill in position to pass this late in the session.

Cobb-Hunter said Thursday that she had not yet seen the SACS letter.

But she disagreed with the assessment that her amendment did not explain how board members may be fired and could allow for undue influence from the Legislature.

Cobb-Hunter said there’s still time to get the bill passed this session.

SACS warned S.C. State in late 2008 based on five areas of concern, including whether the board overstepped its authority when it decided not to renew the contract of former President Andrew Hugine, effectively firing him.

The warning was lifted in December 2009 after the school demonstrated clear lines between the role of the administration and the Board of Trustees.

Also Thursday, a lawsuit was filed against two S.C. State officials: G. Dale Wesson, vice president for Research & Economic Development and Public Service and executive director of 1890 Programs; and Charles A. Wright, executive director.

Reinhardt Brown, who according to the university’s website is the special assistant to the executive director of the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center, filed the suit in which he claims federal funds were illegally diverted to the center.

Diane Knich contributed to this story. Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.