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Give Caslen a chance, but change board governance

Meanwhile, in Columbia

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The selection of retired three-star Gen. Robert Caslen as the new president of the University of South Carolina system is a raw wound that needs to heal in two ways.

First, a vocal minority upset by the process and choice still feels the sting of the wound. That's understandable. They lost. But now it's time to move on and give the new president, who starts Aug. 1, a chance. It's up to him to put salve on the wound, pull the university's campuses together, and help them move forward.

Harris Pastides, the university's president until the end of July, has already called for healing. "There is no doubt that the last few months have been difficult and have strained relations within our Carolina family," Pastides told The State newspaper. "From time to time that happens in every family ... Let's pledge to work together to begin the healing and reconciliation as we seek to move our great University forward."

Second, and perhaps more critical, is the whole procedural mess surrounding Caslen's selection — the gubernatorial interference, the protests, the board dysfunction, and the secrecy. Fixing this is easier — and harder at the same time.

The easy part is for university governing boards to be open and transparent in selection of leaders. What's harder is to change the composition of the people on these boards so there is more transparency and diversity of viewpoints. Changing who sits on university boards is controlled by the legislature, which many would agree is not a body that hums like a finely-tuned machine or particularly worries about diversity. It is, after generations, still mostly white and male. And it is messy, political, and slow to embrace change.

As outlined last week by Statehouse Report's Lindsay Street, the legislature's appointments to university governing boards has created educational fiefdoms mostly in its own image.

"Of South Carolina's 161 public university board members, including ex-officio members, 39 were female and 25 were black," Street reported. "The University of South Carolina ... has a governing board that is 88.9 percent male and 94.1 percent white." Furthermore, the review of board members revealed no board members who were Latino, Asian, or of Native American ancestry.

There are, of course, exceptions among the state's 10 governing boards. Two-thirds of trustees at S.C. State University, a historically black institution, are black, but it also is tied with USC for having the lowest percentage of female trustees. Governing boards at Winthrop and Lander universities look more like the rest of the state. But white males rule the roost elsewhere.

A bipartisan bill in the state Senate seeks to make the USC board less unwieldy by cutting its size from 20 to 11. But that's just another bandage on a process that doesn't address the lack of diversity on all university boards.

The General Assembly needs to make diversity a priority on all state-appointed boards, from universities to agencies, to better reflect the opinions and values of people throughout the state. If white males — a minority in our state — continue to be a majority when decisions are made, governance at all levels won't benefit from broad ideas that can make things better for everyone.

Legislators need to use the fracas at USC in recent months as an incentive for better governance. They need to listen to what people are saying about the process and do something about it.

Similarly, now is the time for USC's incoming president to do a lot of listening to bring students, faculty, and staff together so they can flourish. The retired three-star general has had lots of success in the past, including five years lead-ing West Point, a top-25 college.

So far, Caslen ("call me Bob") seems to be off to a good start. He's met with some students and faculty members. He's read critical comments from the hiring process. He's outlined a general, positive vision with statements like, "I do not believe in being average. A great university requires excellence. I will expect that in myself and I look forward to seeing that at our university."

Let's hope he keeps listening — and that lawmakers will take proactive steps to create better university board governance.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@statehousereport.com.

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