By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Column: Not hard to connect CHE dots
Andy Brack
Andy Brack

An ultra-conservative culture warrior is not the right person to lead the state Commission on Higher Education (CHE).

But hey, this is red South Carolina where some folks apparently think that a past editor of a neo-Confederate journal who got a Ph.D. in government and international studies is a good choice to be a finalist to lead the state agency with oversight for new college programs.

Hmmm. Wonder if this means someone wants more God in public liberal arts education?

The state Commission on Higher Education, which has oversight of new buildings and programs, got in hot water last year after state lawmakers learned the agency’s president and executive director got a raise of almost $91,500 to $257,767 a year. Lawmakers squawked. The president and the agency’s board chairman eventually stepped down.

That led CHE to post a vacancy on its website. Five dozen people applied and, according to media reports, six semi-finalists were interviewed. Three became finalists, including an assistant commissioner of a similar agency in another state and a higher education lawyer with 20 years of experience in education law and ties to the Palmetto State.

The third finalist is Leesville’s Oran P. Smith, a poster boy for the Christian right who reportedly is the favored choice of GOP Gov. Henry McMaster. Guess who appoints members of the commission, with input from the legislature? The governor.

Smith’s past job of editing Southern Partisan magazine from 1989 to 1999 came to light in recent media reports. But it’s not listed in his 22-page job application that includes a curriculum vitae with four pages of his books, book chapters, publications, presentations, speeches and interviews.

Rather, he says he spent 1988 to 1999 as a vice president of Richard Quinn and Associates, a primarily Republican Columbia political consulting firm with clients that have included McMaster and state Attorney General Alan Wilson. The namesake, Richard Quinn Sr., is a GOP kingmaker who was indicted last month on 11 counts of perjury and one county of obstruction of justice as part of a Statehouse corruption probe.

Smith, who has served on the board of trustees of Coastal Carolina University since 1993, also did not list articles like this in his application package: “Rules are rules: How immorality is expensive” (2018) and “South Carolina schools are not underfunded” (2019). But he did list works on conservative Christians, fundamentalism, higher education reform, the Confederate flag, the Common Core curriculum, the teaching of character and “the sanctity of human life.”

As a president and CEO of the Palmetto Family Council from 2002 to 2018, he worked on “defending and strengthening families in South Carolina” by advocating vigorously against abortion, for marriage, for religious liberty, for vouchers, for charter schools, for evolution and for abstinence education. The organization, now called Palmetto Family, also pushed for graduation credit for off-campus Bible study.

Then in 2013, he and former GOP U.S. Sen. and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint co-founded the Palmetto Promise Institute. He currently is serving as its senior fellow ($120,000 a year) in what is a more sophisticated effort of “using high-end graphic design and direct personal interaction with state leaders” to push conservative reform.

Get the picture? Smith, who by all reports is a nice guy, is a proud conservative zealot who wants to put more of what South Carolina once was back into the public sphere. But that’s not what the Commission on Higher Education needs today.

Let’s hope Smith continues to inject ideas into the public forum, but as a think tank guy, not head of a state agency. Board members of the Commission on Higher Education should reject his application because there’s one place where narrow ideas aren’t needed -- the very place that oversees colleges and universities and the big ideas that emanate from them.

If the board can’t find a good candidate among the other two finalists, it should hire a professional search firm and start over. Our students deserve that.