It's Time for Term Limits

Boards of trustees at higher education institutions around the nation should be more diverse when it comes to generational representation, argues James L. Anderson.

July 18, 2019
University of South Carolina

The University of South Carolina Board of Trustees has resumed the search process to replace Harris Pastides as the institution’s next president and now plans to vote tomorrow. Appointing Brendan Kelly as an interim president to take over from the retiring Pastides was a necessary step in the right direction.

But how did the board get to this point? Was it avoidable? And are there wider implications?

The lack of cross-generational representation on the Board of Trustees may explain why the search has been mishandled.

It all started with the release of the board’s four finalists for president, none of which were women. Among the 12 semifinalists for the job, the only woman selected withdrew for undisclosed reasons.

In response, 44 student organizations and 125 faculty members signed a letter calling for a more diverse pool of candidates. A former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, was perceived to be the board’s frontrunner to succeed Pastides. Some reports, however, seemed to indicate that the current dean of the graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, William F. Tate, was the most popular candidate among students and faculty members.

Dozens of students protested the board’s final vote, claiming that Caslen did not comport with the values and beliefs of the university. Protesters pointed to his comments on alcohol and sexual assault, lack of experience at a major research university, and involvement in the 2003 Iraq war. To be fair, Caslen’s comments exclusively connecting sexual assault to alcohol consumption were off-base, but they were also largely taken out of context. And his opponents should view Caslen’s apology as sincere. But focusing solely on that issue diverts from the elephant in the room.

Taking a Step Back

The Board of Trustees is responsible for selecting the institution’s president. Yet the University of South Carolina board failed to net a single female semifinalist and almost chose a candidate that the university community opposed.

Throughout the history of higher education, it was less of a priority for a board to respond nimbly to societal changes and movements. Continuity and pragmatism were always valued over social consciousness. But rapid changes in technology have provided digital space for a wider university community to oppose any perceived lack of responsiveness to such concerns.

In fact, that is exactly what occurred in the presidential search at the University of South Carolina. First, the younger generations and faculty members protested the perception of a lack of gender diversity. Secondly, the board’s frontrunner (Caslen) diverged from the wider university community’s choice (Tate). Third, South Carolina governor Henry McMaster successfully pressured the board to call a vote in favor of Caslen. McMaster has touted Caslen’s ability to raise money and balance budgets while ignoring the wider student body and university community’s opposition to Caslen. These instances allude to a possible generational disagreement over what a university president should look like.

Some people may argue that public boards know what’s best for their universities based solely on their experience. But we must also recognize that we live in a new world that is vastly different than the generational makeup that most boards reflect.

It is well past time to address generational and procedural imbalances on public boards.

From Generation to Generation

Given the rapid advances in technology and its daily impact, boards must change their thinking and become more active. To quote former Tennessee governor and past chair of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance Phil Bredesen, “boards can no longer serve as rubber stamps for university presidents.” Gone are the days when age was considered the strongest indicator of “valuable experience” for a trusteeship. Knowledge about organizational innovation and the tech industry, as well as executive experience responding to social movements, are more relevant than the centuries-old ageist argument.

South Carolina legislators, as well as those in other states, should nominate more diverse, young, accomplished leaders to trusteeships because, right now, the makeup of public boards for universities and colleges is heavily skewed toward white male baby boomers.

A comparison of the University of South Carolina’s board to the 2016 national averages from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges indicates a clear gap. Nationwide averages public boards are made up of 32 percent women and 24 percent racial/ethnic minorities, while the university’s board sits at 14 percent and 5 percent, respectively. However, the board’s generational makeup is on par with national averages, as approximately 66 percent hail from the baby boomer generation.

Pass the Torch

Baby boomers are stewards of the post-World War II America. Most share vivid memories of the Cold War. Others grew up watching Walter Cronkite and lost loved ones in Vietnam. This generation never stops contributing to America’s progress. They are the backbone of the civil-society organizations we know and love. But now it is time for them to pass the torch to another civic-oriented generation: the Y generation, or millennials.

Millennials have surpassed boomers as the largest current generation and are the most demographically diverse. The Pew Research Center places the Y generation as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force; by 2020, it will constitute over a third of the global work force. Millennials are a civic-oriented, highly innovative, tech-savvy and socially conscious generation.

But millennials lack representation on boards of public universities and colleges. The private sector faces the same challenge. Few companies and organizations have millennials serving on their boards of directors or in their corporate governance structures. Several companies promote more gender and racial diversity on boards, but age diversity is often overlooked. In the private sector, digital advances, awareness of societal issues, evolving business strategies and risk methods demand younger voices that understand the lenses of millennials.

Nationwide, colleges and universities should recognize the important role for millennials in public boardrooms.

So, what’s the solution?

Term Limits for Boards

In 2018, the United States Spencer Stuart Board Index, an analysis of American private-sector and nonprofit boardrooms, showed that, given the low rate of director turnover, boardrooms have been slow in keeping pace with new societal trends. Simply put, senior board members are unwilling to step aside.

Currently the bylaws of the University of South Carolina’s board do not impose term limits. In fact, the bylaws provide emeritus status to trustees who serve 12 or more years.

Term limits may be the solution. There are three clear arguments for term limits for university trustees, similar to those for members of certain state legislatures.

First, a trusteeship is not a career. It should be viewed as an opportunity to leverage a member’s professional network, assets and distinct skills for the betterment of the institution. Second, the speed of technological and societal change demands that public boards be highly mobile and adaptable. Structural term limits can provide space for generational turnover to occur -- heightening a board’s ability to respond to societal changes while maintaining continuity.

Third, term limits would obligate state legislatures and governors to consider new and highly accomplished diverse young talent for trusteeships. In the case of the University of South Carolina, engrained in the board’s bylaws is the General Assembly’s responsibility to make the board representative of South Carolina.

This situation is not distinct to the University of South Carolina. Other Board of Trustees models across the country may be experiencing the same sort of generational dissonance. A truly cross-generational and more diverse board is necessary to meet the opportunities and complex challenges of tomorrow. Term limits could be a first step toward reaching that goal.

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James L. Anderson is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and founder of the My Carolina Veterans Alumni Council. He is currently a visiting Fulbright fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect any organization with which he is affiliated.


James L. Anderson

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