Orna Smith at CHE

Oran Smith speaks to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education board and college leaders on May 15 in Columbia. Smith was a finalist to lead the agency that oversees 33 colleges. Andy Shain/Staff

COLUMBIA — A panel looking for a new leader of South Carolina's college oversight agency did not recommend giving the job to Oran Smith, a longtime limited government advocacy group leader who was criticized for working at pro-Confederate magazine.

The S.C. Commission on Higher Education director search committee instead on Thursday suggested hiring Rusty Monhollon, assistant commissioner at the Missouri Department of Higher Education, for the $176,000 a year post overseeing the state's 33 public colleges.

The full commission will choose a director May 31.

Smith, a longtime friend of S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster who works for the limited government advocacy group Palmetto Promise Institute, was among three finalists. All finalists were deemed "highly qualified" by the search committee. 

"While I believe I could have provided transformative leadership in this role, I am honored to have been considered as one of the three finalists, and look forward to continuing to work as a constructive partner to move higher education in our state forward," he said in statement.

Smith's candidacy was denounced because he spent a decade working for "Southern Partisan" magazine that glorified the Confederacy.

Smith has said he had a change of heart about the Confederate flag flying at the Statehouse, as well as Civil War memorabilia, since leaving the magazine in 1999. 

"I would hope that they would allow me to explain my deeper understanding and errors of youth that I have made," he told The Post and Courier last week.

Still, he struggled to explain his role at the magazine during a meeting with commissioners and state college leaders last week.

Smith's answers to questions, including that he was an entry-level employee when he worked at the magazine, did little to ease concerns from critics.

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Hundreds of LGBTQ advocates sent emails to the state Higher Education Commission opposing Smith because of his fights against same-sex rights and marriage when he led the Palmetto Family Council for 16 years.

Smith has said he can separate his personal views from his professional duties, citing the 26 years as a trustee at Coastal Carolina University.

But the search committee suggested hiring Monhollon, though no explanation was provided in a news release announcing the recommendation.

The other finalist was Mary Broadwater, a Columbia native who is an attorney with a Baltimore for-profit university operator.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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