John A. Carlos II (copy)

Robert L. Caslen is introduced as the 29th president of the University of South Carolina on July 22. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

The University of South Carolina’s response to inquiries from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools should clear up any concerns — both genuine and affected — that the university will lose its accreditation as a result of Gov. Henry McMaster’s involvement in the selection of President Robert Caslen.

But we hope the decision by the new president and trustees to hire a “governance consultant” to “review our processes to determine areas in which our governance practices may be strengthened” suggests a real commitment to fixing the problems that prompted that promise.

We also hope the university doesn’t spend too much money on this endeavor, because the big changes that need to be made are either 1) beyond the control of the university and its trustees or 2) painfully obvious.

As trustee chairman John von Lehe Jr. explained in his letter and other board members said when they met last month to hire Mr. Caslen, most board members already wanted to hire the former West Point superintendent before Mr. McMaster got involved. We still don’t think the governor’s involvement was prudent, but Mr. McMaster, who is by law the chairman of the board of trustees, merely pushed the board to stop delaying and take a vote.

And therein lies one of the biggest governance problems USC needs to address: the trustees’ reluctance to be forthcoming.

We don’t mean to single out USC: a lot of governing boards in our state suffer from the same problem. But the consequences were particularly grave in this case: By not explaining its initial decision to not take a vote — and by giving the impression that it was starting a new search — the board triggered a huge backlash among the state’s elected officials and gave Mr. Caslen’s critics the false impression that he was out of the picture.

That’s not the only problem this process revealed.

When trustees met to hire Mr. Caslen, their comments seemed to confirm what had long been speculated: that the consulting firm they hired to help with the search process had stacked the deck of finalists in Mr. Caslen’s favor. Trustees also raised concerns about being constrained in the questions they could ask the finalists and then rushed into making a decision.

Since we presume it’ll be a while before USC needs to conduct another presidential search, the trustees should make some changes to their bylaws now to ensure that nothing like this can happen again. Other colleges should also take note of what happened here. It should never be the job of the hired hands to dictate a school’s president. Trustees should be given ample time and freedom to interview candidates and, if trustees decide to solicit feedback from the public, ample time to review that feedback.

The other big governance change that USC needs is to reduce the Legislature’s influence over the board. (Again, this isn’t a problem that’s confined to USC.) But that’s not up to the trustees or the university.

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A state Senate subcommittee is scheduled to meet Aug. 20 to debate a bill that would shrink the board from 20 members to 11, which might be a good idea, but eight of those 11 members would still be selected by legislators. A better model — the model favored by most states — would let the governor appoint the trustees, with approval from the Senate or the full Legislature. Although it might make sense to remove the governor as chairman of the board, as some have suggested, it doesn’t make sense to reduce the governor’s influence over the board.

As any of USC’s political science professors could tell you, the U.S. system of governance envisions legislative bodies writing the laws and executives (that is, presidents and governors) carrying out those laws. Appointing people to run government agencies isn’t part of the job of writing laws; it’s part of the job of carrying out those laws. One reason for this division of labor is that it’s impossible to hold a legislative body accountable for its personnel decisions: When everybody’s in charge, nobody’s responsible.

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