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January 24, 2020; Chronicle of Higher Education

Following a year of public controversy that was capped by their search for a new president, the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees wisely saw the need to take a step back and identify what they could learn from their experience. They commissioned a study and engaged consultants to give them feedback about how effectively they were doing their jobs. Last week, they got the report they asked for, and now the board faces the need to consider difficult, adaptive changes.

The hiring of Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. as university president was greeted by accusations of improper political interference. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the new leader’s selection had “chipped away at public trust” in the board and exposed the university to scrutiny from its various governing bodies.

Going further, the consultants, based on interviews with board members, claimed the board showed “limited respect for shared governance,” and that its work “rarely adds value.” Still, the main cause for concern was the political cant of the trustees’ approach—a pitfall nonprofit boards, particularly those at large institutions like universities, may find familiar.

The report challenged the board to take steps to protect their school from improper political intervention by the state’s governor and legislators. The consultants wrote,

The story of a higher-education institution needs to focus on system achievement and vitality…so when the most high-profile story of an institution is about the failure of board governance—allowing the intrusion of politics into a system that is designed to resist external influence—the reputation of an institution is negatively affected. Institution reputations are fragile; once damaged it takes years of work to restore—if possible—a more positive perception.

This past weekend, the consultants joined the board for a retreat to discuss their findings and help the trustees consider structural and cultural changes. Consultants found themselves facing an audience struggling to accept their message and the difficult work the report put before them. John C. von Lehe Jr., the board’s chairman, rejected the conclusion that their choice of Caslen had been the result of heavy lobbying by the governor. After 22 years on the board, von Lehe said, he has “never witnessed a trustee vote for or advocate a policy because of political influence.”

Board member C. Dorn Smith III also did not appreciate the suggestion that the university’s board was captive to the desires of its legislative electors. “The implication that you’re alluding to is that every member of this board is only concerned about themselves being reelected, and that we put our political lives before the forefront of the greater good of the university,” he said. “I don’t believe that for a minute.”

The university’s board needs to choose a path forward. They can reject their consultants’ findings and make minor changes to mollify critics. Or they can look more deeply at themselves and at the need for systemic, adaptive change. Jennifer Kramm, writing for NPQ, observed, “In the face of complex issues, we want a quick fix…in reality, what’s almost always needed for organizational change are both technical and adaptive solutions.”

As we follow this story further, we will learn how one board chooses its path. For the university, its faculty, and its students, we are hoping they take the harder but necessary road forward.—Marty Levine