Sisyphus (1548-9), by Titian. The painting is in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Via Wikipedia.

Now comes the South Carolina General Assembly, a group of elected officials who often don’t need any help in being considered a certified mess, as actors insert themselves into a leadership imbroglio of zealous trustees at the University of South Carolina.

Brack

It’s a two-part play — The Dysfunctional React to Change the Dysfunctional — that, so far, has an unsurprising encore. Maybe there’s a better way.

After years of ignoring board leadership shortcomings at the state’s flagship university, the legislature now finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to sort out a board of trustees that has run amok. It’s not the first time lawmakers have let a situation fester until they had to swoop in and fix what they should have fixed long before. Just look back to recent years when they had to deal with a failed nuclear construction project that cost billions and when they essentially hit a reset button with leadership at S.C. State University.

What’s been going on lately with board leadership at UofSC (that’s what we call it now) has morphed, festered and spread like rust. The large, unwieldy board, members of whom have to play serious politics with the legislature to get appointed in the first place to what should be a non-political fiscal oversight role over eight campuses and 50,000 students, has bitten off too much:

  • Too many trustees have served too long, which has fostered an environment of coziness and entitlement, both of which were fueled by the legislature not paying enough attention all along.
  • UofSC’s secretive, inept, good-old-boy searches for a new president with questionable input by the state’s governor was the first act of the play that ended with the resignation of that president after allegations of plagiarism.  A subsequent search saw a top candidate withdraw, in part, because of all of the dysfunction.
  • Act Two highlights the board’s meddling which, some charge, led to improper insertion into the school’s athletic program and multi-million-dollar buyouts of mediocre coaches in ongoing, Sisyphean attempts to have winning seasons.
  • And now as some of the longtime trustees are trying to win reappointment by the legislature to keep their jobs comes another smudge over whether the board’s chair lives in the UofSC district he’s supposed to represent.

It’s all a public relations nightmare. But wait, it can become a public policy horror story as the General Assembly, almost on cue as an encore, enters to “save the day.” Translated into regular English, that means another knee-jerk solution to something lawmakers should have fixed long ago.

Here’s a suggestion: Rather than float in with another ill-conceived rush-job of a way to reform governance at the University of South Carolina, slow down and:

  1. Fire any trustees who you’re unhappy with. Just get rid of them. That’s why lawmakers have the ability to make — and break — appointments. Then put people in there who will be responsive and open, providing the oversight that the university system needs to get back on track.
  2. Instead of reacting with another last-minute plan that’s fated to have unintended consequences, spend a little time to come  up with a real reform plan for university governance after analysis of what’s working and what’s not working. Yes, such a plan probably means a smaller board.  But also look at how this board — and all other university boards in the state — function so the same problem with another college doesn’t pop up in a few short years. In other words, fix the problem. Don’t wallpaper over it.
  3. Review the whole process of how people are appointed to college and university boards and make sure those who are awarded the positions understand what they should do and not do.  

Taxpayers expect good governance at the Statehouse and on state university campuses. The legislature should fix dysfunction at UofSC — but in a way that makes real changes and isn’t just more hyperventilating overreaction.

Andy Brack is the publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to:  feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.


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