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Attorney calls for transparent search; SCSU group helping find new president

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An attorney for the S.C. Press Association is calling for transparency during South Carolina State University’s search for a new president.

The university released a statement on Jan. 27 announcing the start of the search for its 13th president, with S.C. State trustee board Chairman Rodney Jenkins appointing a presidential selection committee.

Article III, Item 1 of the trustee board's bylaws was cited in the release as having given the trustee board sole responsibility “for the selection, periodic evaluation and retention or termination of the university president.”

It was also stated in the release that the selection committee was established as a trustee board ad hoc committee, also in accordance with the trustee board's bylaws.

When asked if a vote to appoint the committee and its members was taken in a public meeting during which a public vote was held, university spokesman Sam Watson said via email, “The chairman appointed the committee.”

But S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender says the committee, “could only have been established by a public vote, by a vote in a public meeting. And then the appointment of the members, if it was to be voted on, had to be voted on in public. They couldn't do any of that lawfully behind closed doors.”

Committee members include: trustee Douglas Gantt, chairman; trustee Monica Scott, vice chair; trustee Louvetta Roseboro Dicks, secretary; trustee Danny Varat, member; trustee William Oden, member; Dr. David Staten, ex-officio member; trustee Henry "Hank" Allen, ex-officio member and trustee Jameel Allen Sr., alternate member.

In the university’s release, Jenkins said he charged the committee with ensuring an “accurate, transparent, deliberate, intentional and accountable” selection process, as well as one which would engage, “key university stakeholders, including faculty, staff, students, alumni and business and community partners.”

Jenkins had also stated in the selection process would proceed, “in a very confidential manner.”

“The only candidate who will be publicly identified will be the person ultimately selected by the board,” he said.

Bender said, "There's two things wrong with that. Number one, it's illegal and, number two, with the notable lack of success this board has had in identifying presidents who can be successful, you would think the trustees would want the broadest base of support they could possibly get for any candidate."

The attorney said Jenkins' statement was in clear violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act because Section 30-4-40 of the FOIA states: “All materials, regardless of form, gathered by a public body during a search to fill an employment position, except that materials relating to not fewer than the final three applicants under consideration for a position, must be made available for public inspection and copying.”

Bender said, “What you're entitled to see is all material gathered with respect to the group from which the final selection is made, provided that group is not fewer than three persons. ...

“They don't have to give you access to all of it, but you are entitled to access to that group from which the final selection is made.”

Bender continued, “The group from which the final selection is made cannot have fewer than three persons in it. You're entitled to a breakdown of the whole group of applicants. ... If they have a question about it, they should read the Supreme Court of South Carolina decision in New York Times Co. vs. Spartanburg School District No. 7.”

Jenkins has said that the board had no intention of not obeying the FOIA and that a revised statement, one which would have deleted his statement about publicly identifying only the person ultimately selected by the board, would be issued.

It was not. Instead, Sonja Bennett-Bellamy, S.C. State vice president for institutional advancement and external affairs, said in an email on March 7 that no other statements would be issued outside of the Jan. 27 statement.

“When the committee reaches a point in the search where candidates are being vetted, we will be more than happy to answer any additional questions,” she said.

Bender it’s probably reasonable for there to be some time for the search to proceed.

“There may not be any answers right now, but I would get the written request in for access to those records," Bender said.

“I know that if you want a broad base of support for whoever you hire, you introduce the competing candidates to people who are going to be serving or attending the university. To spring just one name on the faculty, on the students, on the supporters is not the way to build a consensus that you have the best candidate for the job,” he said.

Bender said the applicants are to be named when the university gets down “to the final three or final five, however it is, you're entitled to see their applications, you're entitled to see their resumes, supporting letters. That would include names.”

“They're not required to do it in advance of making the decision, but if they were smart, they would identify three or four persons that they have interest in, identify them publicly and bring them in to meet with the various university constituencies: trustees, students, faculty, benefactors," he said.

“The field cannot be narrowed by the search committee unless it's done in a public meeting,” Bender said.

He said he was not singling out S.C. State when it came to deficiencies in complying with the FOIA.

“It's always easy to cover-up incompetence and corruption if you do it in secret. The problem is the people who run South Carolina State, who run Coastal Carolina, who run the University of South Carolina are not our rulers. They are our representatives, and they need to be responsive to us as members of the public,” he said.

Selection committee
now search committee

The members of what was then the presidential selection committee did not provide a report during the trustee board's Feb. 3 meeting.

They did change the name from a presidential “selection” committee to a presidential “search” committee.

Trustee Monica Scott, committee vice chair, suggested the change since the committee will only help with the search for a new president. University trustees will select the new president.

The South Carolina State University Board of Trustees’ Presidential Search Ad Hoc Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 15. They will meet via teleconference. To access the public portions of the meeting, dial 800-753-1965 and enter passcode: 536 – 9972.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD.

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