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USC board adopts rules to avoid political influence but might not do enough for critics

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Students walk along the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. State lawmakers are still considering whether to makeover USC's board.

COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina board adopted new rules and created a special committee on Friday to address concerns about political influence raised in an investigation after the school's troubled presidential search last year.

Critics say the new governing rules will do little to change the culture and makeup of the board that led a consultant to call the group overseeing the state's largest university “fundamentally misguided” and led the faculty at its main campus to issue a vote of no confidence.

Trustees still face state lawmakers angry over what became a national controversy. The Legislature could pass a bill that would cut the board's 20-member size in half, or, at the least, vote out seven incumbent trustees later this year.

USC trustees hope that by adopting formal rules to address when they are contacted by legislators, alumni and parents and creating a special committee that will handle board management, they will ease criticism and end monitoring by the university's accrediting agency ordered after an investigation last year.

“Our board will continue to identify ways in which we can build trust with university stakeholders and reaffirm our commitment to ethical and accountable leadership," board chairman John von Lehe said. "Today was an important step in fulfilling that promise."

Trustees did not adopt broader recommendations raised in a $146,000 independent consultant's report, including eliminating a committee overseeing athletics to stop micromanaging work overseen by the university president; and adopting 12-year term limits. Seven of the 16 board members elected by lawmakers have served for more than 16 years.

Trustees could make more changes in the future after a 33-page report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges called the board’s culture “fundamentally misguided” and a “consistent threat” to the school’s reputation because of the “intrusion of politics.”

The changes came after a probe by the accrediting agency Southern Association of Colleges and Schools into Gov. Henry McMaster calling trustees to vote for retired West Point Superintendent Bob Caslen as president.

Caslen won the job after a contentious board meeting in July that led to a 11-8 vote. Some trustees echoed campus criticism about Caslen's lack of major higher education experience and how the presidential search was not re-opened after the board passed over Caslen three months earlier.

The accrediting agency did not sanction USC, but is monitoring the school after finding “undue influence” from McMaster's lobbying. McMaster has said he was allowed to lobby trustees because he is an ex officio member of the USC board.

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At a special meeting Friday, USC's board adopted:

• Rules requiring trustees who speak with someone trying to influence them to notify the board chairman. The governance committee could issue unspecified sanctions for breaking the rule, though von Lehe said he cannot imagine it would ever be needed.

University attorneys used wording suggested by the Association of Governing Boards since the group is respected by the accrediting agency that placed USC under a monitoring order. The policy says the board serves as a model for university conduct. 

"The board will keep the mission of the University System and its individual campuses as the focal point of all policy decisions and be mindful of statewide policy agendas as a framework for their actions," the policy states.

• An oath of office that trustees will take and a formal and more detailed code of conduct for them to follow and sign annually.

"I recognize that, as a board member, I must refrain from active or indirect engagement in University System or campus operations or efforts to influence the management of staff throughout the University System," one section of the code of conduct reads.  

• A new governance special committee, likely to become the board’s most influential panel because it will review and could suggest adopting some of the recommendations from the consultant's report. Kingstree surgeon Dorn Smith will chair the committee.

One member named to the panel is David Seaton, a non-board member who is the former chief executive of construction giant Fluor Corp. and leader of a USC's $1 billion fundraising campaign. The board bylaws allow appointing non-members to special committees.  

The changes do not address concerns about the USC board's lack of diversity.

Half of USC’s 20-member board are lawyers, 17 are men and 19 are white.

The Legislature elects 16 of the school’s 20 trustees, giving the board little direct influence in changing who wins a seat.

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