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Oversight trips up university trustees hoping for re-election

If you want a good look at the consequences of poor oversight in higher ed, look no farther than the University of South Carolina. Every state does things differently. Trustees who want to sit on the boards of public universities there don’t just file some papers to run for office. Nor are they simply appointed. The legislature elects them.

The South Carolina legislature vets trustee candidates for its public universities before the legislature votes on them. And the College and University Trustee Commission had a field day today with five trustees of the University of South Carolina seeking re-election.

Following the embarrassing hearings for the five USC trustees, the Commission decided not to vote on whether to nominate the quintet to the General Assembly in May. Instead, the Commission wants to see what the General Assembly does with bills to reduce the number of trustees on USC’s board. (Currently, it’s 22.)

The commission’s list of complaints is long. In fact, one Columbia Republican characterized the condition of the university as a “dumpster fire.” That says a lot, since many of the university trustees are also Republicans.

Chief among the commission’s concerns were the hiring and firing of retired US Army General Bob Caslen as the University’s president. The university’s search efforts got off to a bad start. South Carolina governor Henry McMaster – a non-voting board member – urged trustees to hire Caslen. Several trustees secretly flew to Florida on a university-owned plane to meet Caslen before deciding to support McMaster’s request.

Oversight is less about politics than it is about … oversight

Unfortunately, Caslen had no experience running a university and lasted less than two years in the position. A FOIA request turned up embarrassing emails in which Caslen denigrated the university. He resigned only after reports surfaced that he had plagiarized a graduation speech.

The presidential search wasn’t the only thing on the Commission’s mind, however. The University used $10M from its general fund to buy out the football coach. USC also recently fired its men’s basketball coach, triggering another $3M payout. The transfers led to the discovery that the USC athletic program is $40M in debt. That angered South Carolina lawmakers, whom the trustees had assured that the athletic department paid its own way. Additionally, the university’s problems triggered an investigation into its accreditation.

USC’s problems trace back to a failure on the part of its trustees to perform their oversight responsibilities. The trustees traded the well-being of the university the Legislature entrusted to them for their own short-term political gains. Ultimately, the Legislature will not return the five trustees to the university’s board, and will reduce the number of trustees who oversee it.

Cutting the number of trustees is an interesting strategy. On the surface, it appears to reduce oversight at a time when the university needs more of it. In reality, it increases the pressure on the remaining trustees to perform their duties to the legislature’s satisfaction.

The taxpayers of Washtenaw County should be so lucky.

Photo Credit: Henry Lawford , via Flickr