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Board of Regents Bills Languish

Two bills to reform South Carolina’s public higher education system by creating a board of regents are languishing in the General Assembly even as arguments for such a board mount.

The bills were introduced in the House in January 2011, the beginning of the current two-year legislative session, and sent to the chamber’s Education and Public Works Committee.

Nothing has happened with either bill since then, other than both of the measures picking up one co-sponsor: Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville.

The session ends in early June, and all lingering bills die when it does.

Hence, it’s highly unlikely the board of regents proposals will make it through the meat grinder of the legislative process before the session closes.

Nevertheless, it’s arguably just as unlikely that the board of regents issue will go away, despite the fact that many public college officials might long for it to do so.

The idea of creating a statewide board to govern South Carolina’s public colleges and universities, rather than each institution operating under its own board as is largely the case now, enjoys wide, bipartisan support.

Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican from Sumter County, is chief sponsor of one of the board of regents bills, H. 3025.

Rep. Boyd Brown, a Democrat from Fairfield County, is lead sponsor of the other, H. 3036.

Similarly, former Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, advocated a board of regents throughout his two-term administration; while, more recently, Democratic Sen. Gerald Malloy of Darlington County spoke meritoriously of the regents model during a Senate Education Committee hearing in February.

Board of regents supporters say such a system would bring a unified, coordinated vision to public higher education in South Carolina. They contend that the state’s mishmash of independent boards, like self-serving silos, fosters parochialism and duplication that wastes precious resources.

“Our current higher education structure includes 17 public universities and 16 technical colleges, each with an independent mission and focus, and each controlled by its own governing board of trustees,” Sanford wrote in his final executive budget.

Continuing, he said, “Although each campus is unique and desires to maintain its own identity, the absence of a unified plan for higher education has promoted a lack of focus within and between our institutions.”

South Carolina does have a state-level umbrella entity – two, in fact.

One is the Commission on Higher Education. The commission, however, acts more as a coordinating body and an advocate for state-supported universities than a critical-minded overseer of them.

The same is true of the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education and technical colleges.

Both bills in the House would abolish the Commission on Higher Education and transfer its duties and powers to a board of regents. Smith’s proposal would do likewise with the state technical colleges board.

Advocates of a board of regents have an ever-expanding library of evidence to argue their case, more than a decade’s worth of skyrocketing tuition rates not least among the reasons.

A few other examples:

S.C. State University has been in the news for weeks on end because of financial and personnel problems. Just last week the school’s president, George Cooper, announced that he would resign effective later this month.

S.C. State’s troubles have been so widespread that S.C. Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, is calling for the school’s entire board to be ousted. “The board has got to go,” Ford said in a March 4 story in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat. “We want a whole new slate (of trustees) for those kids coming in next year.”

The University of South Carolina, dabbling in areas outside of its core educational mission where the school had little to no experience, has had its disasters, too.

An alternative energy biomass plant USC built sits idle, plagued with failings a few years in the making.

On a much larger scale, USC’s Innovista research campus, conceived as a grandiose live-work-play district, has yet to materialize from its beginnings as a scandal-plagued, ginormous public money pit.

Clemson University, meanwhile, violated state law and its own policy by doling out pay raises – in some cases hefty increases – without conducting performance evaluations of Clemson employees who received the salary hikes, according to an August report by the Legislative Audit Council.

Sure, state schools are doing lots of good work, too. But what do their leaders think about South Carolina going to a board of regents?

Malloy put that very question to USC President Harris Pastides, Clemson President Jim Barker and Medical University of South Carolina President Ray Greenberg during the Senate Education Committee hearing in February.

And how did the presidents of the big three respond?

All three of them sat stone-cold silent, like bumps on a log.

That’s right – a sitting state senator whose responsibilities include appropriating state funding to their institutions asked the state’s three research university presidents a direct question, and they flat-out refused to answer him.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Budget General Assembly Higher Education Innovista Legislation

Sen. Robert Ford Rep. Murrell Smith University of South Carolina Clemson University S.C. State University Jim Barker Harris Pastides Rep. Boyd Brown Mark Sanford State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education S.C. Commission on Higher Education Ray Greenberg