Tensions between state lawmakers and the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees have reached a boiling point over the past week, with the legislature introducing a bill that would fire all board members and cut their membership by nearly half.

Multimillion-dollar coaching buyouts, concerns over campus building names, and divisive presidential search leading to accreditation agency scrutiny, The flagship campus in Columbia has been mired in negative publicity for the past few years. Lawmakers put much of the blame on trustees. The Legislature’s proposal to reshuffle its board passed the House 113-1 this week after a series of brief interactions between trustees and lawmakers.

During hours-long hearings on March 28-29, a panel of lawmakers cross-examined current board members over the disputes, ultimately refusing to approve the reappointment of five longtime trustees. The College and University Trustee Screening Committee, which includes the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, reviews proposed campus trustees. It decided not to support five trustees — C. Dorn Smith, current board chairman; Thad Westbrook, vice chair; C. Edward Floyd; John von Lohe; and Charles Williams — Even if the board reorganization bill does not pass, their re-election puts their future membership in limbo.

“It doesn’t really create a lot of confidence in your ability, do you understand … that point?” Sen. Dick Huptelian, a Democrat, told a board member, according to a video of the hearing. “Isn’t it the time for us to do more than just rearrange the deck chairs? Titanic? I mean, as long as I live in Columbia, this university has its ups and downs. “

During the hearing, lawmakers expressed frustration with the board’s management of the university’s budget. Much of their problem centers on the millions of dollars the university has lent to its athletic departments to buy football and basketball coaching contracts, and the university’s 2019 presidential campaign that was interrupted by allegations of political interference.

Lawmakers echoed the university’s accrediting body, which said in 2020 that the board bowed to political pressure in appointing Lieutenant Robert L. Caslen Jr. as president. The certifier said the South Carolina governor exercised “undue influence” by calling on board members to urge them to vote for former West Point president Caslon. Lawmakers also pressured trustees to fly out to meet Caslen in person when they decided to spend thousands of dollars while he was still a candidate.

Caslon’s appointment sparked protests from some students and staff, and he resigned in May 2021 after admitting to plagiarizing part of his commencement speech.

Several trustees told the hearing that the board needed more oversight, acknowledging the mishandling of the presidential search.

“Politics is not about running a university,” said Williams, a trustee not approved for re-election by lawmakers. “We should find the absolute best person for any job. We should give the best direction and policy. We don’t need to be involved in micromanaging anyway.”

Williams said he was not a Kaslen supporter initially, but once he got the job, the trustee tried to “do whatever it takes” to make Kaslen successful.

on the fast lane

In the state legislature, lawmakers opted to skip committee debate on a board reorganization bill and voted unanimously to “fast-track” the legislation into the House, a step that would make it more likely to pass by the end of the May session. The bill still needs to pass Senate and signed by the governor to become law. Gov. Henry McMaster reportedly told reporters recently that the bill seemed “OK” to him. nation.

Republican Rep. G. Murrell Smith Jr. said the most high-profile aspect of the proposal would be to fire all current board members on June 30, 2023, although the bill would not prevent them from running for re-election. sponsor of the bill.

The legislation will also overhaul the structure of the board by reducing the number of trustees from 20 to 13 and by no longer electing board members from the judicial circuit. Instead, the legislature will elect one member from each of South Carolina’s seven congressional districts, as well as four other members who live in the county where the university’s eight campuses are located. The governor will appoint the last two voting members. The Governor, the Student Council President of the flagship campus, and the Alumni Council President will all serve as non-voting members.

Terry McTaggart, a senior fellow at the Association of University and College Boards of Trustees, said the legislature’s move to reform the board to such a degree was unusual. While many state legislatures have pushed bills to determine education policy or curriculum, this one is unusual because it focuses on board performance rather than ideological or political priorities, he said.

“You’re asking if smaller is better,” MacTaggart said, referring to board size. “Yes, but it’s more about who is appointed and a culture of responsible governance, and the legislature is accountable for both of those things.”

A spokesman for the University of South Carolina declined to comment, other than to say the board operates within the purview of the legislature. A request for comment sent to the board’s common email address went unanswered.

“If the board is as dysfunctional as you say it is, why on earth are we re-electing any current members back to their current seats?” Republican House Speaker Jay Lucas asked Williams during the hearing.

“You are the ones who elected them,” Williams said. “If you think there should be a change, all you need to do is make a change.”