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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Colleges as Political Playthings: South Carolina President Search Edition

By the time you read this, U. of South Carolina may have a new president. Students fund 50% of the university. Should they have a say on the board?

July 19, 2019
 
 

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster would like to see Robert Caslen, former Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, installed as the next president of the University of South Carolina.

Thus far, it hasn’t been going well, but Governor McMaster might still get his way. 

The process was troubled from the get-go when a search process described as “incredibly opaque” by students resulted in an all-male group of 11 semi-finalists and four finalists, an outcome called “astonishing” by Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women. 

Caslen, the board-favored finalist did not go over well during his time meeting the campus community, reportedly being criticized for comments “taken to blame binge drinking for sexual assault,” (a charge perhaps overstated) and being viewed as lacking the research background necessary to oversee an R1 institution.

The protesting faculty and students have rallied around the cause of returning “integrity” to USC, criticizing the very nature of the search process.

It seemed as though the search had been shelved and would be restarted, but with the bulk students and faculty away over the summer, Gov. McMaster, who sits as a member of the USC board by virtue of his office, contacted other board members urging them to approve Caslen and calling for a vote on July 12th. That meeting was stopped by an injunction which successfully argued that the notice for the meeting did not happen in a timely enough fashion.

There will be some kind of meeting and vote the day this post appears. As to what’s going to happen, who knows? It was recently floated that the Board could play a total wildcard and choose a previously unknown and unannounced candidate. The meeting is scheduled for 10am, meaning by the time you read this, there could be a new president of the University of South Carolina, but let’s not imagine that such an announcement would end the controversy.

From my perspective, one of the more surprising parts of the current USC story is that McMaster’s move has met resistance from the board itself. While there may be enough votes to confirm Caslen, the injunction delaying the meeting was filed by board member Charles Williams. 

Turning the selection of the president of its public higher ed institutions into a politicized sham is something of a tradition in South Carolina. In 2014, former South Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore and Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell was named president of the College of Charleston despite not being recommended as a finalist by the search firm that had been paid six figures for its expertise. Having been the proprietor of a Confederate memorabilia shop and a committed historical re-enactor of the Confederacy, McConnell was – to put it mildly – a controversial choice for a school that claimed to be committed to increasing diversity and becoming more inviting to African-American students. 

But the fix was in. The Board of Trustees was essentially following marching orders, though being de facto political appointees largely tied into to the Republican establishment in South Carolina, they were orders they believed in.

McConnell stepped down last year having had a largely unremarkable tenure, but with a significantly enhanced state pension. 

It seems clear that Caslen – and this was true to a lesser extent with McConnell – is seen as someone who can bring the renegade liberals (students and faculty) to heel while also courting Pentagon research dollars. The rationale behind choosing McConnell was that his experience in the legislature would help prize additional funding from the state legislature.

The state contribution to College of Charleston’s budget increased from 10.2% to 12% during McConnell’s tenure. Student tuition and fees make up 75% of College of Charleston’s budget.

As a big research university, University of South Carolina at Columbia has a smaller proportion of tuition footing the bill, just over 50%, while state appropriations are a hair under 10 %. 

Writing yesterday at IHE, USC graduate James L. Anderson argues for term limits for university board members as a route to bring generational and gender diversity to bodies that generally look very little like the communities they’re responsible for overseeing. 

It’s a fair enough idea, but will not change much of anything as long as the selection is 100% controlled by the state legislature and positions are doled out as patronage, one powerful group choosing influential individuals which are then beholden to them. While there are no term limits, board members must be reapproved every four years, and running afoul of the legislature’s wishes is a sure route to getting bounced.

(Hence my surprise at some members of the USC Board bucking McMaster.)

James L. Anderson’s idea has the advantage of possibly being adopted while the one that I’m about to offer doesn’t, but it’s all theoretical anyway, so what the hell?

While my nature as a dispositional conservative makes me hesitate to go full “they who pay the piper call the tune,” given that students are funding half of the university, what if a certain portion of the board was selected by students? 

Crazy, right? It gets crazier. Since faculty are not only important stakeholders in the institution, but are also on the front lines trying to enact the institutional vision and purpose, what if they had some representation on the board?

One-quarter student selected representatives, one-quarter faculty selected representatives, with the other half consisting of those selected by the legislature plus the ex-officio members, which includes the governor.

Imagine what would happen if these different groups had to come together to consult, compromise, and approve the policy and operations of the institution in which they all have a stake? 

Contentious debates? Good! Let’s have it out. Rather than having to engage in disruptive protests to be heard (and usually ignored), students and faculty could organize and advocate for their views. Sometimes those parties would be aligned. Other times not. 

All of this strikes me as healthy for the long term interests of the institution.

The worst possible scenario is the recent status quo, where state institutions are treated as political playthings, even as the state reneges on its responsibility to support those institutions. If the state wants to keep acting like it owns the right to control the university, maybe they could get back to funding it.

James L. Anderson has a good point. Times have changed and university boards should change with them. 

I say let’s just make sure any changes accurately reflect the current times.

 

 

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