COLUMBIA, S.C. — The chairman of trustees for South Carolina's largest university defended his board Wednesday as three powerful state House members questioned the board's commitment to diversity and financial responsibility.
The focus was a bill, sponsored by House Speaker Jay Lucas, that would remove 16 elected members from the 20-person University of South Carolina Board of Trustees by the summer of 2021.
The board would be cut to 12 members. New members would be elected from the state's seven U.S. House districts instead of South Carolina's 16 judicial circuits, where they are currently drawn. The bill also would eliminate the governor's seat on the board.
Senate President Harvey Peeler has introduced his own bill that would cut the number of trustees to 11, end the terms of all elected trustees in June but keep the governor on the board.
Many lawmakers have long been dissatisfied by rapidly rising tuition and a lack of diversity among students and the leadership at USC. But the catalyst for this year's bill was last year's hiring of new president Bob Caslen.
The retired U.S. Army general was abruptly hired last year after a hard sell from Gov. Henry McMaster. Caslen had been in a field of four presidential finalists that was criticized for its lack of diversity — just one minority and no women — and lack of experience and poor impressions during campus visits.
The three-member subcommittee that met Wednesday — with more than 60 years in the House between them — unanimously voted to send the bill to the full House Ways and Means Committee and spent almost an hour grilling Board of Trustees Chairman John von Lehe.
"There is nobody who looks like me who is a decision-making position in the university who is not a part of the executive leadership team," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an African American woman first elected to the House in 1992.
The Orangeburg Democrat said she may introduce an amendment later allowing the board to remain at 20 members, as long as some seats are reserved for minorities or people from rural areas.
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a white Republican from Columbia, joined Cobb-Hunter in questioning von Lehe about the university's commitment to diversity.
In 2000, nearly 19% of the University of South Carolina's undergraduate students were African American. In the latest numbers available from 2017, the figure was less than 9%. The school had 500 more African American undergraduates enrolled in 2000 than in 2017, even though the university had added more than 11,000 students during those 17 years, according to figures from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.
Also during those 17 years, the number of out-of-state students has gone from 19% of the student body to 37%. Out-of-state tuition costs much more and brings more money into the university, but it's an option mostly reserved for richer families.
"We're not educating the students of South Carolina. We're educating the students of New Jersey," Finlay said.
Finley also pointed out the state's seven Congressional districts basically have the same number of people while the population of judicial circuits varies widely.
The 5th Judicial District that includes Columbia has about 476,000 people while the 3rd Circuit made up of four counties to the east has 189,000 people, according to U.S. Census data.
Von Lehe defended the board and said Caslen promises to look harder at diversity and minority student recruitment. He said cutting the number of elected board members might have the opposite affect.
The two women currently on the board would are from the same congressional district, said von Lehe, a Charleston attorney. He also said more members on the board means more distinct voices.
"Reducing the number of people responsible for so many areas could hamper decision-making by reducing expertise and diversity of thought," von Lehe said.
Subcommittee chairman House Majority Leader Gary Simrill compared the roles of trustees and lawmakers to a human heart out of rhythm and in atrial fibrillation. He said he expected plenty more debate as the bill continues on.