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Lone Black Trustee Retained on University of South Carolina Board

COLUMBIA, S.C. – State lawmakers voted to retain the only Black member of the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees Wednesday in a vote that drew attention to the board’s lack of diversity and threatened the school’s football recruiting.

Leah Moody, an attorney, was elected by an 80-77 vote to continue to represent York and Union counties. She defeated Alton Hyatt, a White pharmacist and lawyer who was considered a favorite last month before Black lawmakers decried the prospect of losing Moody.

“It’s a glorious day,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Black Columbia Democrat who helped lead the outcry. “It says the General Assembly does care about diversity.”

Even with Moody remaining on the board, an Associated Press analysis shows that the school’s governing board is already less diverse than others in the Southeastern Conference. Of the 10 public schools in the SEC, on average, about one in seven trustees are minorities.

Moody said she’s proven herself as an interim trustee since last summer, when Gov. Mark Sanford appointed her following the resignation of the board’s only Black member at the time. Moody is to keep her seat until 2012.

“I feel they voted like they felt was right,” Moody said after the vote. “I’m happy for the students of South Carolina.”

A month ago, when Black lawmakers thought Moody would lose the election, several said members of the Black community were telephoning the university’s Black football recruits and telling them to question their commitments. The Associated Press could not verify any were called, and there have been no reports of a recruit changing his mind. However, fans of the team were outraged.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who is Black, said she believes threats to the team backfired and hurt Moody’s prospects.

“The threats made it more difficult,” said Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat. “It offered people who didn’t support her an excuse.”

She called Moody’s election a positive step toward diversity but said more are needed. A current open seat caused by a trustee’s recent death should also be filled by a minority woman, since a single non-White trustee and two women who have votes on the board are not enough, she said.

Lawmakers also noted that the board still will not reflect the school’s student body, which is 16 percent Black.

Moody is one of 17 voting board members; 16 of those are selected by the Legislature to represent geographic regions, and one is selected by the governor.

In the SEC, 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.

Rep. Greg Simrill, who supported Hyatt, said his longtime acquaintance and former political rival would have won if four legislators who had committed their support had been there to vote. A family death and a fall kept two lawmakers away.

Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said race was a factor in lawmakers’ voting but argued that the contest should not be about race. He said more African-Americans should run for positions on the board.

Moody’s mother, former Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, attended the vote. Moody teared up when asked about the presence of her mother. “You always want to have family showing support,” she said.

Hyatt, who served a year in the House, said he had no hard feelings.

“I felt like I did the best I could,” he said. “They have to make the decision they feel is best.”

Senate Education Chairman John Courson, whose district includes the university, said his vote for Moody had nothing to do with race or political party.

“She was extremely well qualified,” said Courson, a White Republican, also noting that he felt an allegiance to Moody’s mother.

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.

Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said Wednesday the governor likely will not appoint an interim trustee to the newly vacant seat because the Legislature plans to fill the position quickly. The screening process opened Wednesday.

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