COLUMBIA, SC ( Associated Press) – A small group of powerful lawmakers is refusing to approve re-election offer for five trustees of the University of South Carolina.
Lawmakers are upset over $ 10 million borrowed from regular funds to the athletics department to buy out a football coach’s contract and a secret plane trip they undertook to meet a candidate for university president who flared up after 22 months s at work.
The five men have all served on the board of the state’s flagship university since at least 2010. In just the past three years, they have engaged in a divisive presidential search in which the governor has been involved and the school’s accreditation, sexual harassment lawsuits threatened and paid close to $ 20 million to fire coaches in high-profile sports – one of the largest amounts in the country.
“In my opinion, the university has finally reached a level of a garbage can,” Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican, said.
The College and University Trustee Commission decided not to vote on Tuesday on whether to send the trustees to an election before the entire General Assembly on May 4th. Bills that could soon start moving in both the House and Senate will reduce the number of trustees on the board.
All five South Carolina University trustees – C. Dorn Smith, Thad Westbrook, C. Edward Floyd, John von Lehe and Chuck Williams – testified before the committee on Monday. It’s digging into their finances, attitude and philosophy about providing advice to the school’s athletic director.
They all promised the board had learned its differences behind and from the problems. “The board is now working better together under an organizational structure,” Westbrook said.
But Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who recalls his days as a prosecutor, said he does not buy the promises that everything is better.
“Even when people are moving in different directions or flipping a new leaf, there should be consequences,” the Columbia Democrat said.
An extensive topic of interrogation was the appointment of retired army genl. Bob Caslen as president of the University of South Carolina in 2019. It was a controversial search Caslen and three other finalists were initially rejected. Critics said Caslen was inexperienced in running a large public university and knew nothing of the school.
Gov. Henry McMaster, an ex officio trustee, stepped in and asked board members to appoint Caslen. Four trustees who supported Caslen flew to Florida on a university plane to meet him in secret
McMaster’s involvement, to call every trustee, and his chief of staff who send text messages to Westbrook such as “the Democrats hate us. We took their castle ”led to an investigation into the university’s accreditation and changes in how it appoints president.
“That search was a mess,” Westbrook said, adding that he apologized to fellow trustees.
Caslen resigned last May after being caught plagiarizing a graduation speech. Months later, a public record request for his emails came down on a note to a fellow university president.
“This place sucks so badly,” Caslen wrote. “I do not know how anyone can endure it.”
The next presidential search also had problems. University donor and Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy resigned from a search committee after Smith told her she was on the panel as a “courtesy”. Lawmakers asked Dorn and others if there were harsh words, anger or fingers blowing in Kennedy’s face.
Trustee Alex English, a former star basketball player from the University of South Carolina whose re-election bid was confirmed Tuesday, said he can see where Kennedy feels abused.
Smith said he can not remember swiping a finger in Kennedy’s face.
“I have the greatest respect for her. She is a laudable member of our community and I’m sorry I upset her, “said Smith, who added after the confrontation in a hotel in Atlanta where the committee was reviewing the CVs that Kennedy was working on. to pour champagne on her private plane for the trustees at the retreat.
The trial also revealed that the university’s athletics department was so cash-strapped after COVID-19 took a $ 40 million portion of its budget that it had to borrow $ 10 million from the school’s general fund to raise nearly $ 13 million. million to pay off football coach Will Muschamp. . This stunned lawmakers, who have been told for decades that athletics pays for itself.
Earlier this month, the school fired male basketball coach Frank Martin and will pay him $ 3 million for not coaching.
“Shouldn’t we fire you like Muschamp and Frank Martin? Your buyout is definitely much cheaper, ”said Harpootlian.
The trustees of the University of South Carolina were scheduled for five hours of hearings. On Monday morning, lawmakers polled four candidates for three trustee seats at Clemson University in less than an hour.
This led Williams to a painful revelation about his school’s main competitor in all sorts of endeavors – from academics to the soccer field to blood supply and canned food collection.
“Clemson’s board is a great example of how a good board works,” Williams said.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.