USC President

The failure of University of South Carolina trustees to explain what happened at an April meeting allowed student protesters to believe they had forced the board to back down from hiring Robert Caslen as president. So the students' anger was all the more intense when the board hired the former West Point superintendent last week. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

It’s bad enough that public bodies hold some of their most important discussions in secret. Then they refuse to talk publicly about the decisions they make in secret.

It’s not just annoying. That secrecy can also do some serious damage.

Consider the turmoil that has engulfed the University of South Carolina in the wake of trustees’ decision first to not hire and then to hire former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen as president.

To hear them tell it, most trustees wanted to hire Mr. Caslen in April but delayed a vote out of respect for members who were upset about either the candidate or the process.

That was understandable, particularly since, according to one trustee, trustees weren’t given time to review the 600 pages of comments they solicited from students and faculty, and weren’t allowed to ask the candidates anything other than canned questions. (Those conditions, by the way, were completely unacceptable.)

What wasn’t understandable — or wise, or in the best interests of the university — was their decision to keep all that to themselves.

Several trustees suggested at Friday’s meeting to hire Mr. Caslen that they considered their April non-decision a delay rather than a rejection of the retired Army general. But by issuing a bare-bones statement that said they were continuing the search process and naming an interim president, they left the impression that he had been passed over. That impression triggered legislative and social media outrage on the right that trustees had allowed a hundred or so protesters to dictate their decision, and Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision to lobby trustees to quickly elect a president before any more damage could be done to the university’s reputation.

Mr. McMaster’s efforts to get a vote on Mr. Caslen in turn reignited the social media hysteria on the left, which now included a hefty sense of betrayal because students had been allowed to believe that they had stopped his selection.

Watch Friday's USC trustees meeting.

Charles Williams, the most vocal critic of the way the search was handled, said at Friday’s meeting that student protests “had absolutely nothing to do with my vote, and I don’t think it had anything to do with anybody else’s vote.”

“But I wasn’t allowed to go out and say the student protest isn’t why we didn’t vote; I’ve got to be quiet,” he said.

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Mr. Williams told us this week that there weren’t any specific directives not to talk; it had just always been the board’s policy that individuals wouldn’t comment after executive sessions. But the idea that members of state and local boards and commissions can’t say anything after an executive session is widespread.

To be clear, although some legal authorities say it’s implicit, nothing in state law prohibits members of public boards from discussing what is said in executive sessions. And even if there is some way to legally restrict it, silence is rarely in the best interest of the public, or of the institution.

Mr. Williams argues that the biggest failure of the search was the board’s failure to explain why it didn’t vote in April. We agree.

We’re sure Mr. Caslen’s opponents would have remained outraged even if the board had been more forthcoming; likewise, those pushing the narrative of radical students taking over colleges would have still claimed that was happening here. But critics wouldn’t have been able to make their most sympathetic claim: that they had been misled. Claims about student mobs would have been much more easily dismissed. And if the governor and legislative leaders had understood what was going on, they might not have felt the need to intervene.

It’s probably not realistic to expect the Legislature to make it clear that members of boards, commissions and city and county councils have the right to talk about what happens in executive sessions. But we hope that members of such boards will keep the turmoil at USC in mind the next time they’re deciding what to tell the public after a secret session.

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