The University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees was hours away from completing what is arguably its most important task — appointing a president.
As the board deliberated behind closed doors in April, roughly 100 student protesters gathered outside the conference room berating the board for naming four finalists, all of whom were male and three of whom were white.
“The board of trustees at the University of South Carolina does not reflect the university,” said Lyric Swinton, a senior sports and entertainment major who was a leading activist in the school’s presidential search.
The board’s membership matters because the board’s work can have a wide-ranging impact on the university. While the university’s president — especially a popular and public one like Harris Pastides — can be the school’s most dominant personality and visionary, the board of trustees controls the university’s most crucial functions.
“The president has a lot of say in day-to-day operations… but broadly, the board of trustees makes the decisions,” said former student body president Taylor Wright. “If you want to get an elevator upgraded at Capstone residence hall, the board approves that.”
USC has long been a prime destination for the state’s African American students to obtain a bachelor’s degree. But one couldn’t tell that simply by looking at the school’s board.
While there were 3,264 African American students at University of South Carolina (that’s 9.5 percent of total students) in 2017, there is only one African American on USC’s 21-member board of trustees.
USC educates a higher number of African American students than any four-year college in the state, according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education data. By comparison, Clemson had 1,540 African American students in 2017, which is 6.3 percent of the total student body.
The only schools that educate a higher number of African American students in South Carolina are Midlands Technical College, which had 3,739 African American students in 2017 (35 percent), and Trident Technical College, which had 3,705 (28 percent) in 2017, according to Commission on Higher Education data.
A similar split also applies to gender diversity: 55 percent of USC students in Fall 2017 were female, yet there are only three women on the school’s board.
The lack of diversity on boards of trustees in S.C. is not unique to USC. Clemson University’s board of 13 has three women and one African American. In contrast, Winthrop University’s board of 17 members has eight women and five people who are either Hispanic or African American.
The issue of the board’s social and racial makeup took center stage during the presidential search, as the all-male pool of finalists resembled the mostly-male board of trustees.
“It sends a bad message to the student body when you can’t even come up with one (female) finalist of the four,” said state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster.
Though Powers said she wants more diversity on USC’s board of trustees, the biggest factor in deciding on a candidate is that person’s judgment as a board member.
“There are a number of white males on the board that I supported...and will vote for again in the future,” Powers Norrell said.
It’s something board members are aware of.
“When you look at it and we look across our board and it’s mostly white males like me, yeah, I mean, that doesn’t represent the state,” Trustee Eugene Warr said at a 2016 legislative hearing. “We know that. And I think that probably over the next few years there will be more interest in people running.”
Warr didn’t elaborate on how the increased “interest” would result in a more diverse board.
In order to get a more diverse board of trustees at USC, South Carolinians need to elect a more diverse legislature, said Christian Anderson, a USC professor who studies the history of higher education and how colleges are governed.
“The legislature is a pretty homogenous body: white, male lawyers...it would be nicer to have a healthier mix,” Anderson said.
“The problem is money and time. Who has the money and time to do it?” Anderson said of the legislature. “Not school teachers.”
The issue has risen in prominence since Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, has made it a point to ask every candidate for USC’s board of trustees how they would improve diversity at the school.
“(Diversity) has to be a goal of this General Assembly. If it’s not a goal, trust me, it’s not going to happen,” Scott said.
“I would say we’re doing better, but we still have room to go,” Scott said.
Diversity by the numbers:
USC board of trustees:
21 total members
95 percent white
86 percent male
USC Columbia’s student body:
34,731 total students
75 percent white
45 percent male
USC full-time faculty:
1,723 total members
76 percent white
56 percent male
Source: Commission on Higher Education 2018 Statistical Abstract
Who they are
USC’s current board of trustees is comprised of 21 total people. Of those, the legislature selects 16 by judicial district; three are ex-officio voting positions and two are appointed by the governor.
The student body president and the faculty senate president also sit on the board, but do not get a vote, according to the board’s bylaws. Allowing the student body president a vote would require a change in state law, USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said.
Aside from the faculty senate president, Marco Valtorta, there are no teachers or career educators on the board, though some board members have taught college courses before. The three ex-officio members are the governor, the superintendent of education and the president of the alumni association.
USC Board of Trustees by profession (not counting ex-officio)
3 bankers (one retired)
1 pharmaceutical company owner
1 real estate developer
1 retired CPA
They’re not paid, but do get perks
Like other boards of trustees throughout the state, USC’s trustees are not paid a salary. They do, however, receive benefits such as paid travel and sports tickets.
Last year, USC’s board of trustees reported receiving $143,142 in gifts and compensation, according to the board members’ 2018 Statements of Economic Interest.
Of the 19 board members (excluding McMaster and Spearman), 15 reported receiving gifts or compensation because of their positions as USC Board of Trustee members, S.C. Ethics Commission records show.
The trustee who reported receiving the most expensive gifts from USC was Eugene Warr, who received Final Four tickets, football parking, other athletic tickets and per diem pay, worth a total of $15,834, state records show.
“This is unusual because of the Final Four trip,” said Warr, who has been a board member since 2003 and served as the board’s chair from 2012-2016.
State ethics records back this up. In 2017, Warr reported receiving $3,562 in athletic tickets, parking, per diem pay and gifts, records show. In 2016, that number was $6,319, records show.
The lion’s share of the board’s benefits were for athletics tickets and travel for big games, state ethics records show. Among the costliest benefits board members received was the six who reported attending a Final Four game, which cost $35,277, according to financial disclosures. The records don’t indicate whether it was the men’s or women’s Final Four.
The second highest cost was football tickets, records show. At least nine trustees received free football tickets and free gameday parking, records show.
Here are some other gifts board members received (in total):
- Football tickets and parking worth $29,711
- Athletics tickets (sport not specified), $16,162
- Per diem pay and mileage reimbursement, $10,792
- Men’s basketball tickets, $3,725
- Women’s basketball tickets, $88
Source: S.C. Ethics Commission 2018 Statements of Economic Interest, which covered the 2017 calendar year.
Government hands off, except...
There is no requirement in state law that trustees be an alum of USC, nor are they required to have a certain level of education. The state government is largely hands-off on whom trustees are allowed to name as a presidential candidate, save for one that’s enshrined in law:
“The board of trustees shall take care that the president of the university shall not be an atheist or infidel,” state law says.
They answer to state lawmakers
USC Trustee Charles Williams found himself answering to state lawmakers in April 2018, not about his tenure helping run the largest state agency in South Carolina, but about a newspaper headline where he was being fined $30,000 for killing hawks on his farm.
That discussion devolved into a debate about how predatory birds can hurt cattle and impede quail hunting and whether or not the federal government should allow permits to kill hawks.
In other words, very little about higher education.
The 16 trustees who represent judicial districts serve four-year terms and must be elected by the state legislature. Whenever they’re up for election or reelection, they have to go before the College and University Trustee Screening Commission, an eight-member committee that contains both representatives and senators.
There, state lawmakers grill them on everything from tuition to diversity to hot-button political topics of the day, according to transcripts of the hearings reviewed by The State.
In 2014, USC Upstate made headlines and faced potential budget cuts for an English class that required students to read a gay-themed book, according to a previous article from The State. That year, when lawmakers were interviewing trustee candidates, the book was front and center of the discussion, though neither the lawmakers nor the trustees claimed to have read it.
“This is a conservative state. The values of South Carolina may not be the same values of Massachusetts or California,” Rep. William Whitemire, R-Oconee, said to trustee candidate J. Preston Strom in 2014. “I think that has to be taken into account, even though this is a public university.”
Also in 2014, former Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville, encouraged board of trustees chair John Von Lehe to keep expanding USC’s engineering programs because she has BMW and Michelin in her district.
Though many hearings do involve substantive questioning about tuition, diversity and other USC-related material, these examples show how USC’s board of trustees get sucked into the politics of the day.
USC board member Eddie Floyd doesn’t mind going before the legislature. The school received $176 million from the state budget this fiscal year and Floyd doesn’t mind answering a few questions every four years, he said.
“I really enjoy going before the special committee they have us go to… I think it’s very positive,” Floyd said. “They give us a lot of money and we have to be accountable.”
In the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, USC board of trustees gave $139,773 to S.C. political candidates, according to The State’s analysis of S.C. Ethics Commission data.
Of those donors, C. Dan Adams donated the most, giving $31,000 to political candidates, state records show. Of that, $7,000 was donated to Gov. Henry McMaster’s campaigns. McMaster named Adams to the board in December.
This tally only includes the personal donations a trustee has given to a candidate, and does not include the amount a trustee’s business gave to a candidate. When Adams’ businesses are factored in, he and his companies donated $151,484 to McMaster’s campaign during the 2018 primary and general elections, according to a previous article from The State.
The State has reached out to Adams.
This isn’t the first time a governor has named a campaign donor to the board. In 2011, then-Governor Nikki Haley replaced USC mega-donor Darla Moore with campaign donor Tommy Cofield, who no longer serves on the board, according to a previous article from The State.
Eddie Floyd, a current trustee and former board chair, donated the second largest amount: $27,950, data show.
Floyd, who represents the 12th District (Florence and Marion counties), gave his largest donations to Gov. McMaster ($3,700), gubernatorial candidate John “Yancey” McGill ($3,500), and Senate Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman ($2,000), records show.
“I’m very involved with politics,” said Floyd, who has been a trustee since 1982. “It’s not given to get me elected, and I haven’t had any opposition since I got elected.”
Of top 10 most common recipients of USC trustees’ donations, eight were Republicans, two were candidates for governor, nine were incumbents and all but one ended up winning their races.
Here is a list of the top 10 recipients of USC’s board of trustee donations:
- Gov. Henry McMaster (R): $28,450
- Gov. candidate John “Yancey” McGill (R): $4,500
- Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence): $4,500
- Rep. William B. White (R-Anderson): $3,250
- Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland): $3,250
- Former Sen. John Courson (R-Richland): $3,200
- Rep. Edward Tallon (R-Spartanburg): $3,200
- Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland): $3,000
- Sen. Nikki Setzler (D-Lexington): $2,500
- Rep. James “Jay” Lucas (R-Darlington): $2,500