USC acted unethically in throwing out architectural bids for its new $90 million business school when it became apparent a donor's choice was not going to win, experts said.
Also, the state association of architects will meet this week to decide if it will challenge USC's decision to hire Raphael Vinoly Architects over four Columbia firms at the request of benefactor Darla Moore.
The New York firm was not going to win in state contract bidding to design the school that will bear the Lake City financier's name, sources have said.
The firms spent months and an estimated $100,000 each to bid on the project.
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The business school's foundation now will pay the $4 million-plus to hire Vinoly and donate his services to the university. Moore, who has given at least $70 million to the university, sits on the foundation board.
News that USC had bowed to Moore's wishes has caused ripples in the higher education circles, with national experts saying that the university acted unethically.
"Absolutely," Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute told The State last week. "Especially if her architect had a shot at it and lost."
According to the S.C. State Budget and Control Board, USC is not required to complete the state bidding process because the architecture fee is considered a gift from the foundation.
Eisenberg called that "a fuzzy gray line.
"What the foundation is doing is endorsing an unethical action by the university. It's questionable."
The controversy surrounding the business school's architect is the latest taint on the university's research campus, Innovista, where the school is to be built. Innovista has received more than $100 million in taxpayer money but so far has failed in its mission to attract high-tech firms and create private jobs.
On Friday, USC officials said they will not reimburse the four local firms that submitted bids to design the new business school planned for Greene Street near Colonial Life Arena.
"In the past, we have worked with all the architecture firms that submitted proposals, and we certainly want to maintain a strong business relationship with them in the future," USC officials said in statement, "but reimbursing firms that submit proposals is not a practice or a policy in the business arena."
They added that each of the firms have been awarded significant projects with the university in the past, and Columbia-area businesses "are expected to receive the great majority of the project expenses."
Moore did not respond to written questions submitted last week through USC and representatives of her Palmetto Institute.
The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which helps universities with guidelines and best practices for dealing with donors and alumni, deems it unethical for a donor to dictate who builds an academic building. It would be like a donor picking the recipient of a scholarship or choosing which researcher receives an endowed chair.
USC is a member of the council.
"You don't want (a donor) to have undo influence on the academic mission of the institution," said Rae Goldsmith, a council vice president who is a fund-raising adviser.
The organization's guidelines specifically address a donor choosing an architect as a basis for turning down a gift. The donor can be involved in the process of choosing a design firm, Goldsmith said, "but they can't have more than 49 percent of the vote."
Goldsmith said the council's guidelines are voluntary. She would not address the USC-Darla Moore situation, except to say: "I have not heard of a case like that before."
USC said that it "very carefully follows (the council's) guidelines for gifts to higher education, and that includes Ms. Moore's gifts."
Moore did not order the business school foundation to use Vinoly, USC officials said. Instead, she "requested" that he get the job, the school said.
Jane Frederick, president of the South Carolina chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said the organization's board is meeting this week with a procurement specialist to see if state laws were followed properly.
Frederick, a Beaufort architect, did not rule out filing a protest to the State Budget and Control Board or asking the legislature to change the law.
"At this point, everything is an option," she said.
The flap over USC canceling the business school architecture bids is the latest black eye for Innovista.
The new business school is to be a centerpiece of the campus, supplying expertise and support to businesses that spin off from USC's research.
State and local taxpayers have pumped more than $100 million into the venture, which so far has not achieved its goal of creating substantial numbers of permanent, high-tech, private-market jobs.
Innovista has been through two private developers, its director resigned amid controversy last year, and two private research buildings that were supposed to attract high-tech businesses have yet to be built.