Lawmakers vote to keep USC's lone minority trustee

Published: Apr. 14, 2010 at 3:07 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 18, 2010 at 10:08 PM EDT
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Leah Moody, who keeps her seat on the USC Board of Trustees
Leah Moody, who keeps her seat on the USC Board of Trustees

By Drew Stewart - bio | email | and Jordan Sandler - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The University of South Carolina Board of Trustees will keep its only African-American member after a close vote at the State House Wednesday afternoon.

The General Assembly voted 80-77 to let Leah Moody keep her seat until 2012. "It brings a different perspective to the table so that all students receive and education they're satisfied with," Moody said just moments after the election ended.

Moody's opponent, Alton Hyatt, was gracious in defeat. "Both candidates were qualified, and obviously the legislature looked and decided for Leah," Hyatt said.

Moody's re-election was in peril a month ago. Nearly all the assembly's Republicans supported Hyatt, a white pharmacist from Rock Hill, which angered the Legislative Black Caucus. USC already stands out among Southeastern Conference colleges with the lowest proportion of nonwhite board members. Caucus members say having racial diversity on the board is important, but other lawmakers disagree.

If you speak to her, you wouldn't even know all this focus was on Leah Moody. She is one of just three women on the Board and the only African-American member.

"I think for appearance purposes, it sends a message about South Carolina," Moody said about her position on the board.

Moody was appointed to the board by Gov. Mark Sanford last year to replace the only minority at the time, Sam Foster. She says having a person of color as a trustee benefits the university.

"As an African-American, you bring a different perspective to the board," said Moody.

Rep. Todd Rutherford was very happy about Wednesday's outcome. "To say we care about diversity, we care about leadership, we elected an African-American back on the board and made sure USC is still the flagship university in this state," said Rutherford.

Howard had threatened to make calls to athletic recruits to warn them about coming to USC, though no recruit changed their mind about playing for the Gamecocks. Even so, Moody says she does not support this.

"I don't want any student to forgo getting a great education at a great institution for my account," said Moody.

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 nonwhite trustee and two women who have votes on the board are not enough, she said.

Lawmakers also noted the board still won't 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 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 her mom's presence. "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 he felt an allegiance to her 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.

One of the other trustees who was up for re-election was Michael Mungo. Mungo died Sunday at the age of 82. Since he was running unopposed, his seat will be open, and Sanford could have immediately appointed a replacement.

Sanford's office says Mungo's seat will remain open until a special election held in 30 days.  Candidates will be screened between now and then.

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