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Senate has own plan for Univ. of South Carolina trustees

University Trustees
Jeffrey Collins/AP
/
AP
South Carolina Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, left, and Tom Young, R-Aiken, right, attend a Senate subcommittee hearing on how to change the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees on Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The South Carolina Senate appears to have a different idea on how to revamp the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees.

The Senate's plan still kicks all the trustees off the board at the end of June 2023 and trims the number of seats similar to the House version.

Lawmakers are upset at how some trustees have interfered in athletics and other daily affairs and botched a presidential search that ended with their hire resigning in less than two years amid a plagiarism scandal and who called the university the most hostile and destructive community he had ever seen.

A legislative board that decides if trustees are qualified refused to send five current University of South Carolina trustees, including the board chairman, to a May 4 election.

"All the fears I expressed there years ago were developed in concrete during the testimony of the current chairman of the USC board and other members of the USC board. This is a total abrogation on the part of the trustees," said Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian whose district includes the university.

The version of the bill passed Thursday by a Senate subcommittee would no longer have the trustees come from districts. Instead, the plan cuts the current 20-member board to 17 voting members. The House version trimmed the board to 13.

Under the Senate plan, the governor would get thee appointments, one which would have to be recommended by the alumni association and one from a county under 75,000 people.

The General Assembly would get to pick 12 trustees. One each would come from Aiken, Sumter, Beaufort, Lancaster, Spartanburg and Richland counties where the University of South Carolina has campuses. The other six would have to come from different counties under the Senate plan.

The bill now moves on to the full Senate Education Committee. Supporters want to get it out as fast as possible. New University of South Carolina President Michael Amiridis starts his job July 1.

"It's important this new president not have to deal with these folks. They aren't going to break their habits," Harpootlian said at a Wednesday meeting.

But subcommittee chairman Sen. Tom Young said the General Assembly's calendar probably means the trustees can't be kicked out until the summer of 2023. There is not enough time to have elections before the 2023 session unless the Legislature returns in special session after it adjourns next month.

"Start messing with that date, I think we're going to have some problems in the House getting the bill passed," said Young, a Republican from Aiken.

The University of South Carolina trustees that are not being allowed to stand for re-election, but can continue to serve until the board is restructured or the screening board takes further action are chairman C. Dorn Smith as well as trustees Thad Westbrook, C. Edward Floyd, John von Lehe and Charles Williams.

The five men have all served the board of the state's flagship university since at least 2010. Just in the past three years, they dealt with sexual harassment lawsuits, paid close to $20 million to fire coaches in high-profile sports — one of the biggest amounts in the country and ran a divisive presidential search where the governor got involved and threatened the school's accreditation.

The search hired retired Army Gen. Bob Caslen in 2019 after trustees initially rejected him. Gov. Henry McMaster then called trustees and asked them to reconsider. Some of them took a secret plane trip to meet with Caslen.

Caslen resigned last May after he was caught plagiarizing a graduation speech. Months later, a public records request for his emails came across a note to another university president.

"By far the most hostile and destructive community I've ever been a part of. Not sure how anyone can stand being here," Caslen wrote about the University of South Carolina.