Warren Bolton

Bolton: SC State University’s board needs to be beefed up

gmelendez@thestate.com

WHEN YOU consider the following list of people, what sort of governing board do you think they would comprise?

A retired educator/small farmer

A retired university faculty member and administrator

A retired school administrator

A retired administrative manager

A pastor

An attorney

A 30-year finance professional

A retired university faculty member

An assistant superintendent in a public school district

An owner of an insurance agency

No, they aren’t running a local nonprofit or a community foundation. They’re running S.C. State University, one of South Carolina’s 33 institutions of higher education and its lone historically black college.

I’m sure the board’s 10 members are good people who are successful in their fields and who want nothing but the best for S.C. State. And, taken individually, there’s nothing wrong with any one — or even two or three — of them being a member of the university’s board. But collectively they lack expertise and heft in certain areas — from financial understanding to fundraising — that are critical to the survival of institutions of higher education. To put it plainly: The board needs to be beefed up.

Other than the attorney and the 30-year financial expert, the remaining members of the board bring pretty much the same credentials: a career in education and, I’m sure, a dedication and commitment to S.C. State. If S.C. State is to do more than limp along, it needs a stronger and deeper board whose members have the expertise and heft to address its financial and operational shortcomings.

The university needs a board that not only can balance its budget, dig it out of debt and stabilize it, but also can reposition the university to deal with the changing landscape characterized by declining enrollment and dwindling public funding. It needs a board that can raise money — and lots of it. And it must have people with the heft and savvy to lure a top-notch president who also can sell the university and — above all — raise money.

S.C. State must find a way to build its pitiful endowment and generate alternative revenue. While there are multiple facets to that, having a board comprised of highly accomplished, dedicated, enthusiastic leaders with a long list of contacts and financial know-how is critical. The first donors at the table must be board members themselves.

I’m not talking about an elite board open only to the deep-pocketed or the well-connected or political insiders. There’s a place for the owner of an insurance agency or a pastor on the board. There’s a place for successful graduates who know and love the S.C. State story and have a strong affinity for the school. But there must be a balance and a keen awareness that this is an institution of higher education and that the board must have certain expertise and heft to ensure its success.

Such a board would be relentless in the pursuit of making S.C. State one of the best colleges of its kind. While some people question whether there is still a need for a publicly funded historically black college in South Carolina, if the Orangeburg school was performing at a high level and was drawing top students in this state and from across the country, such a question wouldn’t ever arise.

State lawmakers, who are considering replacing S.C. State’s board with a temporary panel that would hire a new president, must be sure that the next set of leaders sent to S.C. State possesses the necessary attributes and expertise to do more than balance a budget. Even the temporary board must be chosen well and have as its goal to begin the university’s ascent toward relevancy and excellence.

And in the future, as lawmakers populate a permanent S.C. State board, they should make sure to include a mix of people with the ability to adopt the right policies, carry out their fiduciary responsibilities and otherwise ensure that the university is on an upward trajectory.

Part of the problem at S.C. State has been that the pool of possible board members was limited over the years because the majority of lawmakers (the white ones) neglected S.C. State, essentially leaving it to African-American legislators to determine who would become board members. That seriously limited the field of possible candidates and robbed the school of much-needed support, financial and otherwise, from the entire General Assembly.

It wasn’t until S.C. State fell into dire straits that the majority of legislators started doing their job and paying attention to this taxpayer-owned institution.

If they stay engaged, that could translate into a deeper, more effective board. We’ll see, beginning with the temporary board that lawmakers hope to create for S.C. State.

The Senate’s plan to replace the board is a good start, while the House’s proposal to have the Budget and Control Board oversee the school should be a non-starter. That board — made up of the governor, the treasurer, the comptroller general and the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees — isn’t any better equipped to lead the university than the current board.

The Senate’s plan would put S.C. State under the guidance of a temporary five-member panel appointed by the governor and House and Senate leaders. The new trustees would be required to have finance, higher education administration or public administration experience.

Long term, the Legislature should be even more thoughtful about the composition of the board of not only S.C. State but all colleges. Lawmakers must resist making appointments simply because they’re pals with someone or because of political reasons.

Congressman Jim Clyburn has suggested that lawmakers open the process up to allow out-of-state board members. I see no problem with that, although you might want to limit that to a couple of seats. But he’s got the right idea: Broaden the pool with the goal of bringing more fire power to the table.

Given S.C. State’s current struggles, it needs a significant jolt to its system to bring dramatic change: That begins by appointing the most capable board possible, one that not only provides stellar policy oversight but also embraces the challenge to keep the institution solvent and financially stable despite a changing and challenging landscape.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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