COLUMBIA, S.C. – As legislators weigh whether to vote out the lone minority trustee at the University of South Carolina, an Associated Press analysis shows the school’s governing board is already less diverse than others in the Southeastern Conference.
Trustee Leah Moody, who is Black, was temporarily appointed to one of 17 voting posts when another Black trustee resigned. She is up for election to a partial term today and wants a full four-year term in 2012, but a lawmaker from her region is backing another candidate and supporters don’t think Moody has enough votes to win.
The lack of minorities leading the state’s flagship university could affect its ability to recruit black graduate students and faculty, notes Richard Chait, a research professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Nearly 30 percent of the state’s population and 16 percent of the University of South Carolina student body is Black.
Some students also said a defeat for Moody would be cause for concern. Jeremy Stroud, 35, a history major who is White, said diversity on the board shouldn’t be left to a natural process.
“The status quo gets you what you have now,” he said. “You get more lily-whiteness.”
But Ken Baxter Jr., a Black 34-year-old political science major, said Moody should be re-elected because of her experience, not her race, and said he was worried about forcing the issue.
“The more we force things, the more separate we’ll always become,” he said.
An AP analysis of the 10 public schools in the Southeastern Conference found that, on average, about one in seven trustees are minorities.
The University of Mississippi’s board is the most diverse; three out of 12 voting members are Black. Three of 15 trustees at the University of Alabama and four of 23 at the University of Tennessee are also minorities.
At the bottom end of the scale with South Carolina are the University of Arkansas, which has a 10-member governing board with one Black trustee, and Auburn University, which also has just one Black trustee on a 13-member board.
South Carolina’s other major public school, Clemson University, also has only one minority trustee, the least in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the AP found. In 2004, the last year for which figures are available, a survey of 352 public schools nationwide by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges found that 21 percent of board members, or about one in five, were minorities.
Black lawmakers focused attention on the issue at the University of South Carolina when they announced last month that members of the Black community were phoning the university’s Black football recruits and asking them to reconsider their commitments to play for the massively popular Gamecocks. None took responsibility for making calls, and the AP never verified that recruits were contacted or that any changed their minds.
But without diversity, said South Carolina Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Black Democrat, the school will “send a message to this state and to the world that we’re not concerned about a lack of diversity in its leadership.”
University of Alabama trustee and Judge John England Jr. echoed that, saying it is a disservice not to have minorities fully engaged in operating schools because a monochrome board may not spot problems. England, who is Black, recalled raising the alarm on a report about a sharp decline in admissions for Black men who were not athletes.
“Once those figures were pointed out, and board members saw the disparity, they agreed it needed to be looked at,” he said. The trend, he notes, has turned around as officials mimicked the successful community outreach efforts of other universities.
Part of the issue in South Carolina is how people get appointed to the board. At Alabama and other SEC schools, governors or the boards choose members, with legislators sometimes confirming their choices.
At the University of South Carolina, the governor picks one voting board member; the Legislature picks the other 16. Members are chosen by geographic regions.
Moody, an attorney who graduated from the University of South Carolina’s law school, said she does not believe race is the issue in her election.
“My position is I’m qualified, and I think, if you look at my background, I’m committed to public service,” she said.
Her opponent is Alton Hyatt, whose bid is supported by state Rep. Gary Simrill, a White Rock Hill Republican confident who says he has the votes to get Hyatt elected. Simrill said that, to him, it’s about supporting a longtime acquaintance and former political rival whom he believes is the best person for the job.
“There are no minority slots on any of these USC seats,” Simrill has said.
But Cleopus Thomas Jr., the first Black man to serve on the University of Alabama board when it was integrated, said he is astonished by South Carolina’s predicament.
“To have Black folks from South Carolina dying in Iraq and Afghanistan so minority interests there are represented in all facets of government and not be represented in South Carolina? That’s incredible,” he said. “Field a football team, a basketball team like that and see what happens.”