SC University administrators blistered over secret trip and coaching buyouts | Region

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — A small group of powerful lawmakers is refusing to approve re-election bids for five University of South Carolina trustees.

Lawmakers are upset over the $10 million loaned to the athletic department from regular funds to buy out a football coach’s contract and a secret plane trip they took to meet with a presidential candidate from the university which died after 22 months of work.

The five men have all served on the state’s flagship university’s board of trustees since at least 2010. In the past three years alone, they have faced a controversial presidential search where the governor has become involved and threatened school accreditation, sexual harassment lawsuits and paid nearly $20 million to fire coaches in top-level sports — one of the largest sums in the nation.

“The university, in my opinion, has finally reached the level of a dumpster fire,” said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Republican from Columbia.

The Committee on College and University Trustees, which includes the Speaker of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, decided not to vote Tuesday on whether to send trustees to an election before the full General Assembly May 4. reduce the number of directors on the board.

The five University of South Carolina trustees — C. Dorn Smith, Thad Westbrook, C. Edward Floyd, John von Lehe and Charles Williams — testified under oath before the committee on Monday. He digs into their finances, behavior and philosophy providing advice to the school’s athletic director.

They all promised that the board had put its differences behind it and learned from the issues. “The board works better together now under one organizational structure,” Westbrook said.

But Senator Dick Harpootlian, recalling his days as a prosecutor, said he didn’t buy promises that everything was better.

“Even when people move in different directions or turn a new leaf, there should be consequences,” the Columbia Democrat said.

The hiring of retired Army General Bob Caslen as president of the University of South Carolina in 2019 was a major question mark. It was a controversial search that initially saw Caslen and three other finalists rejected. Critics said Caslen had no experience running a large public university and knew nothing about the school.

Governor Henry McMaster, an ex-officio administrator, stepped in and asked council members to hire Caslen. Four administrators who supported Caslen flew to Florida on a college plane to meet him secretly.

McMaster’s involvement, calling every director, and his chief of staff texting directors like, “Democrats hate us. We took their castle” led to an investigation into the university’s accreditation and changes to how it hires the president.

“That search was a mess,” Westbrook said, adding that he apologized to his fellow administrators.

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 college president.

“This place sucks so bad,” Caslen wrote. “I don’t know how anyone can stand 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 out of “courtesy.” Lawmakers asked Dorn and others if there were any harsh words, anger or flailing fingers on Kennedy’s face.

Administrator Alex English, a former star basketball player at the University of South Carolina whose re-election bid was confirmed on Tuesday, said he could see where Kennedy felt mistreated.

Smith said he didn’t remember waving a finger in Kennedy’s face.

“I have the greatest respect for her. She is a worthy member of our community and I regret having upset her,” said Smith, who added after the confrontation at an Atlanta hotel where the committee was examining the resumes that Kennedy poured champagne on his private plane for the directors to retire.

The hearing also revealed that the university’s athletic department was so strapped for cash after COVID-19 took $40 million from its budget that it had to borrow $10 million from the university’s general fund. school to repay a nearly $13 million buyout from football coach Will Muschamp. . That stunned lawmakers, who had been told for decades that athletics paid for themselves.

Earlier this month, the school fired men’s basketball coach Frank Martin and will pay him $3 million for not coaching.

“Shouldn’t we fire you all like we did Muschamp and Frank Martin? Your buyout is definitely a lot cheaper,” Harpootlian said.

The administrators of the University of South Carolina were questioned during five hours of hearing. On Monday morning, lawmakers interviewed four candidates for three trustee seats at Clemson University for less than an hour.

This led Williams to a painful revelation about his school’s main rival in all sorts of activities – from academics to the football field to blood drives and collecting canned goods.

“Clemson’s board of directors is a great example of how a good board works,” Williams said.

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

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