People who think the University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees works just fine, thank you very much, have really lucked out over a couple of years of presidential problems.
The tumultuous non-hiring, followed by the controversial hiring, of Bob Caslen started as the 2019 legislative session was drawing to an end, and by the time lawmakers returned to work for the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 session, Mr. Caslen had gotten off to a decent start as president.
Then this month, the board’s bungling reaction to Mr. Caslen’s disastrous commencement speech went down in the final week of the regular legislative session, which means it’ll be January before the Legislature can make any changes. By then, it’s possible that the board will be in the midst of a promising search for the university's next president, which means the Legislature will probably once again move on to other problems.
We’re not terribly optimistic about a smart search. As Columbia businesswoman and USC donor Lou Kennedy told The Post and Courier’s Andy Shain: “I don’t know what would give us any hope that the handling of this search will be any different. I mean, if it’s the same people with the same opinions, with the same training in the same way, how can we possibly expect something different?”
However the search develops, the Legislature needs to recognize that there were problems with the board long before Harris Pastides announced his retirement in 2018, and the board has failed repeatedly as it moved into the post-Pastides era: Even if you believe Mr. Caslen was the right president at the right time, the way the board handled his hiring was an embarrassment that needlessly engendered animosity on campus and helped set him up for failure. Even if you believe his departure was overdue, the board also should have handled that more smoothly.
So regardless of where the search for a new president is in January, we need reforms to fix the problems with the board.
The sort of good news is that in the wake of Mr. Caslen’s resignation, a handful of legislators filed bills, which will be waiting when the next regular session starts in January, to overhaul the board. The better news is that they and other lawmakers have all summer and fall to come up with something better.
While both Sen. Dick Harpootlian’s S.813 and H.4410 by Reps. Gary Simrill, Kirkman Finlay and Gilda Cobb-Hunter would reduce the board to a more workable size, neither gets at the board's central problem. In the assessment of many critics, that central problem is that trustees are too white, too male, too old and too professionally monolithic. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges agrees with that assessment and points to an even bigger problem: It’s too political.
S.813, H.4410 and the previous efforts to overhaul the board seek to solve that problem by removing the governor as ex officio chairman. That absolutely needs doing; South Carolina is the only state where the governor serves in that capacity, and as we saw in the Caslen hiring, his presence created distractions that helped no one.
But that only gets at the most glaringly obvious problem — and not the central one. In addition to the governor and one trustee he appoints, the board is composed of the state superintendent of education, the chair of the alumni association and 16 more trustees, all appointed by the Legislature from the state's different judicial circuits.
Experts USC paid to recommend reforms to avoid accreditation problems in the wake of the Caslen hire told senators that the Legislature is more involved in trustee selection here than in any other state. (Only four states allow legislators to appoint any trustees.) The bills filed this month would reduce the number of trustees appointed by the legislators to seven of 11 or nine of 12; the governor would appoint two trustees. So while lawmakers would control a smaller portion of the board, they’d still be firmly in charge — and able to exercise their influence individually and behind the scenes, in a way a governor rarely can.
There are two ways to fix that problem.
The most straightforward is to let the governor appoint most or all of the trustees, as most states do. That’s also a sure way to increase turnover and diversity, because a governor can structure the board's mix.
When 170 people make a decision, no one is responsible for that decision. And individual legislators look at every race individually, form different coalitions in every contest to get their favorite candidate elected and don’t have the ability to structure the mix.
An even better solution is to empower an independent merit-selection commission to screen candidates on specific criteria and present two or three nominees for each seat to the governor, whose selections would be confirmed by lawmakers.
Combine either of those ideas with a smaller board that the governor doesn’t chair, and we’d reduce the turmoil at USC and improve the process for selecting a president — either this time or the next time that has to be done.