Calls to restructure USC’s board grow in wake of presidential search controversy

Students and lawmakers are calling for the University of South Carolina to restructure its board of trustees after the most recent controversy in the presidential search.

The push appears to cross ideological lines. Both Republicans and Democrats support some form of restructuring of the board, and both supporters and opponents of Robert Caslen’s candidacy for USC president support an overhaul.

The most concrete proposal to restructure the board is a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Sens. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, Darrell Jackson, D-Richland and Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland. That proposal would reduce the number of people on the board to 11, as opposed to the current 21, and would require the General Assembly to elect all 11 members in 2020.

The bill was filed April 30, just days after the USC board failed to choose a president from four finalists and reopened the search.

“My dissatisfaction with USC’s board didn’t start with this presidential search,” Jackson said. Rather, it was the result of tuition discounts given to out-of-state students and a declining percentage of African American undergraduates at USC, Jackson said.

However, Jackson this week “became even more convinced” that an overhaul of the board was necessary after Gov. Henry McMaster attempted to force a vote on Caslen, the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Caslen has been opposed by many students as well as faculty members.

Though Jackson’s bill would not directly address political involvement in the presidential search, it was filed more to send a message to the board that lawmakers are upset, Jackson said.

But that’s not the only change being discussed. Lois Duke Whitaker, a member of USC’s Board of Visitors for the College of Arts and Sciences, said she will organize to revamp the board and wants students, faculty and staff to have more of a say. Currently, USC’s student body president sits on the board, but he or she does not have a vote.

“Some of the board members have been there for 20 years and they need to get out,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker opposed Caslen’s candidacy, but one of his supporters also favored an overhaul of the board.

Asked if the board should be restructured, junior political science major and former candidate for student body vice president AJ Abate said, “It should be restructured to the point that this doesn’t happen again.”

Abate, who said he supports McMaster’s efforts to force a vote on Caslen’s presidency, said he was “embarrassed” the trustees didn’t select one of the four presidential finalists.

“I think everybody who would want this job will definitely be thinking twice about it,” Abate said.