South Carolina Governor Inaugurated (copy)

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Protesters outside the University of South Carolina's board room when trustees hired former West Point superintendent Bob Caslen last month targeted Gov. Henry McMaster.

"We fight back Henry Mac" read one sign from critics who believed McMaster pressured a vote by trustees after lobbying for the retired three-star Army general who the same board passed over in April.

The state top executive's influence over trustees is likely to change if a bill shrinking the size of the board passes next year.

The governor could have more power.

The proposal reduces the number of trustees elected by legislators but does not change the number of non-elected trustees, giving them a bigger say on the board of South Carolina's largest college.

The governor chooses two seats on the board — an appointee and a designee, since the governor is the ex-officio chairman.

McMaster appointed two allies to the board.

Greenville investment banker Dan Adams and his companies were the biggest donor to McMaster's 2018 campaign. Dick Jones, an attorney with Dobson Law Group in Greenville, was McMaster's fraternity brother at USC.

They were crucial in the hiring of Caslen, who split the campus over questions about his qualifications and interpersonal skills.

They were two of the 11 votes that gave Caslen just enough of a majority to win the job July 19.

When trustee Charles Williams spent a half-hour arguing to the board against Caslen's hiring and McMaster's involvement ahead of the vote, Jones spoke next to defend the combat veteran and the governor.

"A lot has been said about this process being political," Jones said. "It was political long before (the governor called the trustees). There was a politicization of this issue when the first opportunity we had to vote came up. People were giving their opinions, as well you should."

As a tandem, the governor's choices make up 10 percent of the current 20-member board.

If the board-slimming bill passes, the governor's appointees will account for close to 20 percent of an 11-member board.

The state superintendent of education also sits on the USC board and is likely to be an ally of the governor. That creates a three-vote bloc. Superintendent Molly Spearman, a Republican like McMaster, voted for Caslen.

This is all separate from questions that McMaster's lobbying might have violated terms of USC's accreditation that bans undue outside pressure in picking a new president.

At one point, it was thought McMaster was going to chair the meeting to force a vote for Caslen. Board chairman John von Lehe told accreditors last month that board leaders called the meeting and not the governor.  

The stakes are high.

USC's board approves a $1 billion budget, new academic programs and major construction plans for a university with eight campuses and 51,000 students.

Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, one of the Statehouse's most powerful legislators, is serious about changing the board.

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Peeler introduced his bill just four days after trustees voted to continue the search rather than hire Caslen on a split vote.

Trustees wanted consensus and unity. They would not get it.

And now some could lose their seats.

There's sentiment that the board is too big with too many long-serving trustees.

Sixteen trustees are elected by lawmakers. Seven of them have sat on the board since before most current freshmen were born.

So Peeler's bill cuts the number of elected trustees from 16, one from each judicial circuit, to seven, one from each congressional district. Most other major S.C. colleges pick trustees by congressional district.

And if the legislation passes, USC's current elected trustees will be let go.

To stay on the board, they would have to go through the Legislature again, and some trustees could end up running against each other.

What Peeler's bill does not do is change the four non-elected board seats — the two chosen by the governor, the alumni association president and state education superintendent.

That's where the power shift toward the governor's office would come, giving McMaster, a USC alumnus, little reason to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

The legislation's first hearing Aug. 20 will reveal how much lawmakers are willing to change USC's board.

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