Editorial: New board won’t end dysfunction at SC State University

May 1, 2013 

— THE SELECTION of Thomas J. Elzey as South Carolina State University’s 11th president should mark a time of celebration and renewed hope at the struggling college, but things are as dysfunctional as ever.

The board’s presidential search was akin to so much of its work: divisive and contentious. Despite knowing that state lawmakers would appoint new trustees today and despite requests by some legislators, fellow board members and others to delay hiring a new president until after the new governing body is seated, a slim majority of board members voted last week to hire Mr. Elzey, the executive vice president for finance, administration and operations at The Citadel.

The board certainly had the authority to act. But with a capable interim leader in place, it made sense to wait a few months more to allow a newly configured board to choose the leader it must work with to rebuild the university’s finances, image and vision. The past couple of years, the school has endured a perpetual multi-million-dollar hole in its budget, the loss of students, the firing of eight top administrators and the departures of President George Cooper and three board members.

There’s no shortage of people wanting to help get S.C. State back on track. Fifteen candidates applied for six open spots on the board. It remains to be seen how many of the four incumbents — one of whom is unopposed — will be reappointed. In recent years, lawmakers have threatened to oust part or all of the board.

And for good reason: The sad state of affairs at S.C. State is largely the result of sustained ineptitude on the part of the board. While some committed, well-meaning people sit on the panel, others have treated the university like their own personal fiefdom, engaging in senseless and unproductive infighting and turf wars.

Unfortunately, changing board members doesn’t guarantee improvement. Nearly three years ago, trustees fired then-President Cooper after he received a bad performance review; just weeks later, a new board rehired him and took the unprecedented step of cleansing the records to make it appear he never had been dismissed.

S.C. State’s board is notorious for being overbearing and mismanaging the selection and oversight of presidents. The most recent process was no different. The board was continuously split 6-5 on various aspects of the search, including whether to delay making a hire. Some members argued the search wasn’t conducted legally and criticized the presidential search committee for naming three finalists for the position rather than following a plan to winnow the number of applicants down to four and bring them back to the full board so it could choose the three finalists. On the day of the vote, some board members added interim President Cynthia Warrick, who was not among the search committee’s finalists, to the list. Mr. Elzey was chosen by a 6-5 vote over Ms. Warrick.

Dysfunction has reigned at S.C. State for so long because the Legislature has allowed a handful of lawmakers to determine who got on the board and too many acted out of self interest.

It is imperative for lawmakers to change the way boards are appointed to improve the quality of trustees not only at S.C. State but on all boards that oversee our state’s colleges and universities. While it would help to let the governor make appointments — with approval of lawmakers — the better solution is to create a board of regents to direct all of this state’s institutions of higher learning.

For today, lawmakers must choose serious-minded trustees committed to working with Mr. Elzey to balance S.C. State’s books, increase student enrollment and restore public confidence in this invaluable university.

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