S.C. State President George Cooper's appraisal withheld

George Cooper

GRACE BEAHM

ORANGEBURG -- S.C. State University's governing board has refused to release President George Cooper's performance evaluation, a move the state Press Association called illegal.

Jonathan Pinson, the university board's chairman, said after a board meeting Thursday that the group has filed the document with the state's Agency Head Salary Commission, but it would not release it to the public. It marks the second consecutive year the board has tried to withhold the document.

S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender has said that if the board creates a document, it is a public record under the Freedom of Information Act. Failure to release it is illegal. There is no personnel exception in the public records section of the law.

Withholding the evaluation wasn't the board's only violation of the state's open records law Thursday, Bender said.

It also met behind closed doors, stating only that it would discuss "personnel" and "contractual" issues.

Bender said the law requires state agencies to declare specifically their reasons for discussing public business behind closed doors. Simply stating legal, personnel or contractual issues isn't sufficient, he said, and 30 years of S.C. attorney general opinions back that up.

"It's indicative of the very poor governance at that school," Bender said. "They don't care what the law is. They do what they want to do and think they are above the law."

Last year, Cooper's average score on his evaluation was 2.56 on a scale of 1 to 5, the equivalent of a D+.

After conducting last year's evaluation, the board voted not to extend the president's contract, effectively firing him. A newly configured board rehired him as president about two weeks later.

The board never filed that evaluation with the commission. But a board member subsequently released the document to the media.

Pinson said the board did not discuss Cooper's evaluation behind closed doors Thursday, but he would not say what it discussed. And he said he thinks the board's explanation for going into an executive session was sufficient. It was simply conducting an executive session the way it has always has conducted them, he said.

The board's refusal to withhold the evaluation wasn't a surprise. It voted unanimously at a July meeting to keep Cooper's next evaluation confidential, and it stood by that decision.

Cooper was hired in 2008 with a salary of about $200,000, about $145,000 of that from the state and $55,000 from the University Advancement Foundation.