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Commentary: Major changes needed for USC Board of Trustees

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The S.C. Legislature needs to reform USC's Board of Trustees. The board's majority has demonstrated a reckless disregard for its fiduciary duties, a contempt for procedures and a shocking ignorance of applicable state laws, all of which has endangered USC’s accreditation. Above, board members at the trustees' July meeting in which Bob Caslen was selected as USC's president.

The South Carolina Legislature needs to reform the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees. USC is governed by a board majority that demonstrates a reckless disregard for fiduciary duties, a contempt for procedures and a shocking ignorance of applicable state laws. This behavior has endangered USC’s accreditation and led to ongoing monitoring by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges of Schools. The board cannot continue unchecked.

In December, USC's leadership rejoiced -- too soon we now know -- that it had avoided sanction from SACS. Yet the SACS letter released Jan. 17 noted “a number of irregularities that took place during the recent presidential search.” SACS continued, “[USC] has not yet demonstrated that its governing board protects the institution from undue influence from external persons or bodies.” The university is now on notice that its board is not operating properly, with which anyone with a basic knowledge of board governance would agree.

The problems start at the top. Gov. Henry McMaster, its statutory ex officio chairman, improperly influenced the search process, as confirmed by SACS. However, he also ignored state law when he made his two appointments. The governing code section commands that the governor, “shall strive to assure that the membership of the board is representative of all citizens of the State of South Carolina.” No one would agree that the governor’s appointment of two white male campaign supporters to a board with only three women, one of whom is the board’s only person of color, made the board reflective of all citizens.

Meanwhile, the board majority appeared to be likewise deliberately or negligently unaware of state law, and operated outside of any cognizable board or committee procedure. The board chairman called a meeting in violation of the statutory requirement for five days’ notice. Board members Hugh Mobley, Eddie Floyd and Gene Warr met with then-candidate Robert Caslen in violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Board Vice Chairman Mobley inserted Caslen as a semifinalist without approval of the search committee. Multiple board members failed to timely or fully comply with issued FOIA requests.

The Legislature can and should act this session to reform the USC Board. It should start by removing the board members whose actions violated state law. Then it should create a board that can move USC forward boldly. That should include alumni and business leaders, including those who live out of state but can help marshal private-sector and government resources. It should permit a student vote, which has been sought for nearly 40 years. Term limits should be established to permit more people to serve and new ideas to flourish. Finally, as has been proposed, the Legislature should not shrink the board to a size that then cannot reflect the diversity of our state’s population.

The University of South Carolina and taxpaying South Carolina citizens deserve a university board of trustees that can advance the university to the next level and “blaze forth as a beacon,” as the alma mater contemplates. It is time for the Legislature to act boldly and decisively to ensure the trustees are true stewards of the university. Only then can USC “blaze forth as a beacon.”

Marie-Louise Ramsdale is a former USC student body president and was the student representative to the Board of Trustees in 1989-90.

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