5 Univ. of South Carolina trustees can’t run for reelection

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — Five University of South Carolina trustees won’t be allowed to run for reelection next month after some powerful lawmakers felt they were responsible for hiring a president who crudely criticized the school and left in less than two years and interfered in daily school affairs.

The legislative board that screens university trustees is refusing to send them to a May 4 election by the General Assembly where more than a dozen other trustees for universities across the state will be elected.

The decision comes as the Senate prepares to review a bill that passed the House the day after it was proposed earlier this month that would fire all current trustees at the end of June 2023 and redraw their districts, cutting the board from 20 members to 13. Trustees kicked off the board could run for the new seats.

The University of South Carolina trustees the College and University Trustee Screening Commission refused to allow to run for reelection to a new four-year term are board chairman C. Dorn Smith as well as trustees Thad Westbrook, C. Edward Floyd, John von Lehe and Charles Williams.

The trustees will be allowed to remain until either the board is restructured or the screening board takes further action.

The screening board, which includes House Speake Jay Lucas and Senate President Thomas Alexander, did approve trustee Alex English, the first black star basketball player at the university, saying he was elected in 2020 and is not part of the long running problems with trustees.

The other five current trustees tested under oath at a hearing three weeks ago. They were questioned extensively and contentiously about $10 million loaned to the athletic department out of regular funds to buy out a football coach’s contract and a secret plane trip they took to meet with a candidate for university president who flamed out after 22 months on the job.

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 Caslen and three other finalists. Critics said Caslen was inexperienced in running a large public university and knew nothing about the school.

But before the search could be reopened, Gov. Henry McMaster, an ex officio trustee, stepped in and asked board members to hire Caslen. Four trustees who supported Caslen flew to Florida on a university plane to secretly meet him.

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 a fellow university president.

“This place sucks so bad,” Caslen wrote. “I don’t know how anyone can stand it.”

The five trustees admitted the Caslen search went badly, but said they put in place new guidelines so it would not happen again.

“The board works together better together now under an organization structure,” Westbrook said.

A Senate subcommittee will meet Wednesday to discuss proposals to restructure and cut the board.

The bill that passed the House 113-1 on April 6 takes away the governor’s ability to be chairman of the University of South Carolina board if he wishes.

It cuts seven voting trustees and arranges the seats by the state’s seven US House districts instead of 16 judicial circuits with two extra seats allocated for the governor’s choices and four for counties where the university has satellite campuses, which are mostly in rural areas.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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