Is S.C. State University's board of trustees really so bad? 

A Matter of Degrees

S.C. State University is a mess. There's no doubt about it. The historically black state school in Orangeburg is facing declining enrollment, a possible criminal investigation, the firing of eight high-level employees, and the resignation of its president. Some fear that it may even lose its accreditation if it does not get its house in order.

Meanwhile, some state politicians are lining up to get their licks in. Last month, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to replace S.C. State's entire 13-member board of trustees with seven temporary trustees. The bill doesn't have a prayer in the Senate, but such slim chances have never stopped politicians from playing politics before.

Make no mistake, the school's board of trustees needs a swift kick in the butt, and some trustees might even deserve a firing. But as we contemplate how to deal with this troubled school, it might help to offer a little history and context. And so we turn to the University of South Carolina.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, USC President James B. Holderman roiled the school in scandal as he ran up astronomical bills bringing celebrities to campus, maintaining a secret fund to pay one celebrity instructor who possessed no academic credentials, and stonewalling FOIA requests by the media for years.

Most spectacularly, Holderman traveled around the country with an entourage of attractive male students he dubbed "interns," on whom he allegedly lavished clothing, jewelry, and sexual advances. His board of trustees stood behind him through years of litigation, court orders, and the steady drip-drip-drip of damning revelations that lasted longer than the Watergate scandal. He did not resign until The Greenville News hired a couple of backhoes and unearthed cardboard boxes filled with financial records in the Richland County landfill, which Holderman had ordered dumped there years before. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

It is a footnote to add that Holderman eventually went to federal prison for transgressions in his personal finances. But through the years of scandal and national embarrassment, the state House of Representatives never called for the ouster of the USC board of trustees.

Let's look at a case a little closer to home. In 1993, Shannon Faulkner was admitted to the Citadel. Only later did the admissions office discover that Faulkner was a woman and promptly withdrew their letter of admission to the historically all-male public military school. Thus began two years of litigation, bombast, and grandstanding that galvanized the nation, divided the state, and cost us over a million dollars in legal expenses as Attorney General Charlie Condon pursued the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 1995 decision that a first-year law student could have predicted, the Supremes rejected the state's appeal and opened the Citadel to women. Although Faulkner only lasted a few days in the corps of cadets, since her admission more than 200 women have graduated from the school.

So what was the big deal? The sky did not fall. The old, gray walls overlooking the Citadel parade ground still stand proud and tall. Why did the leaders of the state and the Citadel feel the need to humiliate themselves, humiliate their school, and extend South Carolina's losing streak in an endless string of lost causes?

It seems the Citadel cannot stay out of court. Last December, a former cadet brought suit against the school in a hazing incident, claiming breach of contract and assault and battery. Of course, hazing is against state law and Citadel policy. The fact that the school cannot enforce its own rules means the taxpayers of South Carolina are on the hook for more legal fees and probably penalties. And it suggests that something is seriously wrong with an administration and a board of visitors that cannot manage their house any better.

But the big legal fees and penalties will come in response to the blizzard of lawsuits recently filed against the Citadel and President John W. Rosa Jr. over allegations involving the sexual abuse of boys at the school's summer camp. According to the federal complaints, in 2002 Louis "Skip" ReVille allegedly confessed to members of the Citadel Department of Public Safety that he sexually abused young boys and requested the help of the Citadel. The officers allegedly failed to report ReVille to the proper state authorities, violating the school's own policies and procedures. Court filings also claim Rosa and the school arranged to pay one boy's family to remain silent even as ReVille continued to abuse boys at other institutions.

If the General Assembly is upset about the Citadel's board of visitors, they have been very philosophical about it. Perhaps they should be as equanimous about the shortcomings of S.C. State's board of trustees.


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