Race to affect USC board's diversity

What little racial and gender diversity exists on the University of South Carolina's Board of Trustees will be on the line next year as the only African-American member of the board is challenged by an attorney with strong connections to state legislators who will make the final decision.

"It could be a tough race," said state Sen. Wes Hayes, a York County Republican and longtime friend of Alton Hyatt Jr., the attorney and pharmacist who is challenging Leah Moody, a Rock Hill lawyer appointed to the board by Gov. Mark Sanford over the summer.

Moody is the only African-American member of the 18-person board and, with Darla Moore, is one of two women who serve on the board. The 39-year old Moody is serving out the term of Sam Foster, who was in line to be the first African-American chairman of the board before he pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud charges.

Some members of the General Assembly, unwilling to say publicly which candidate they support because neither has met with a legislative screening committee, said having gender and racial diversity on the board is important.

Indeed, the bylaws of the board spell out that importance.

"The governor shall make the appointment based on merit regardless of race, color, creed or gender and shall strive to assure that the membership of the board is representative of all citizens of the state of South Carolina," one section of the bylaws reads.

Even with Moody on the board, its racial and gender diversity falls far short of what is found in the state.

Female residents account for 51.3 percent of the state's population, according to 2008 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Those figures also show that 28.5 percent of the state's residents are African-American.

USC's board is also much less diverse than the student population of the university system.

Just under 59 percent of the students in that system are women, according to 2008 figures from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. African-American students account for 16.3 percent of the university system's students, those figures show.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he believes the importance of gender and racial diversity will move his colleagues in Moody's direction in April or May, when legislators are expected to make a final decision.

"At the flagship university in this state, if we decide not to re-elect the only African-American on that board, that would be bad," Jackson said. "It would be bad for the state. It would be bad for the university."

Jackson emphasized that a vote for Moody is not merely a vote for diversity.

"We're not asking for folks to just stick someone on the board because of the color of their skin," he said. "She adds real value. She's an accomplished attorney. She's run her own law firm."

Moody graduated from Hampton University and then earned a law degree from USC.

She served as deputy legal counsel in the administration of Gov. Jim Hodges, and ran unsuccessfully for the S.C. Senate in 2008.

Moody's mother, Bessie Moody-Lawrence, served in the state House of Representatives from 1993 to 2007.

Hyatt, 45 and a resident of Rock Hill, has his own connections to the General Assembly.

He served briefly in the State House in the 1990s.

Hyatt earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from USC. He pointed out that his pharmacy background would be unique and important to the board, as would personal ties that stretch back to his undergraduate days.

"I went to Carolina as an undergraduate," Hyatt said. "I think that's an important distinction."

In praising Hyatt, Hayes also pointed to his undergraduate connection.

Moody and William W. Jones Jr., who graduated from The Citadel, are the only members of the board who did not earn their undergraduate degree from USC.

"I've always kept close ties to the university," Hyatt said. "The university is something that was good to me."

Moody said she has been thrilled by the opportunity to give back to the university where she earned her law degree.

She said she has met with senior staff at USC to get up to speed on the university's finances and has already served as a touchstone for African-American alumni who have questions about the school's recruitment and retention of African-American students.

"I do think I bring a unique perspective as an African-American, as a woman, as a younger person," she said. "I don't come from a wealthy family. I think it's important to have females at the table. I think it's important to have African-Americans at the table. But at the end of the day, it's all about the students. We want to be able to compete with other universities."