Editorial: SC State woes cry out for change in how trustees are selected

January 20, 2013 

— S.C. STATE University has had its share of troubles, but it’s hard to recall a time when it has seemed as dysfunctional as it is today.

The disheartening state of affairs at the 116-year-old publicly owned, historically black college is largely the result of sustained ineptitude on the part of the university’s board.

While some committed, well-meaning people serve on the panel, it has proven over the years to be overbearing and self-absorbed. Some board members have treated the university like their own personal fiefdom, engaging in senseless and unproductive infighting and turf wars that only serve to damage the operation and image of the university.

It’s understandable that some lawmakers want to shake up the board. But they must do more than reshuffle the deck. They must bring transformational change to reverse S.C. State’s fortunes and improve the quality of boards that oversee all of our state’s colleges and universities.

The most recent problem at S.C. State involves criminal charges filed against former board member and chairman Jonathan Pinson. He’s accused of using his influence as a university leader in a kickback scheme involving a land deal and of profiting by steering a contract to someone to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert. Former campus police chief Michael Bartley also was charged in the land deal; he has admitted his guilt.

S.C. State did nothing wrong. But, unfortunately, the indictments reflect poorly on the university and serve as an extreme example of how board members have proven to be injurious to the university rather than steady, trusted leaders who protect and promote a public institution that is charged with producing high-quality graduates empowered to improve their own lives and contribute to our state.

Just in the past couple of years, the school has had to plug a $4 million hole in its budget; former President George Cooper fired eight top administrators, including Mr. Bartley, and later left himself; and three board members stepped down within a month.

After Mr. Pinson resigned as board chair — he didn’t completely leave the board until recently — there was an intense battle for the spot, with contenders resorting to technicalities and parlor tricks to seize control.

Meanwhile, the school’s enrollment continued to decline, and it learned of a $5.5 million deficit attributed to an accounting error.

So, yes, change is needed. But it needs to be a structural change in board appointments. Currently, lawmakers elect college trustees, giving them undue influence on college campuses but not always resulting in high-quality leadership.

At the least, the governor should appoint board members, subject to legislative confirmation.

The better remedy would be to create a board of regents to direct all of this state’s institutions of higher learning, rather than allowing them to pursue uncoordinated, often redundant plans.

Properly empowered, a board of regents would be able to spot and respond to problems — at S.C. State or elsewhere.

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