Audit: Clemson Pay Raises Violated State Law

October 6, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveClemson University 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 a new report.

Released in August, the report documents waste and abuse of taxpayers’ money at Clemson’s Public Service Activities division, or PSA.

The PSA provides a range of community development, leadership and youth programs. It also promotes research in agriculture and environmental science.

Although a part of Clemson, its Public Services Activities division garners its own line in the state budget – and not a small one at that. Clemson PSA this year is budgeted at more than $62.3 million. Close to half of that is general state funding.

The Legislative Audit Council investigated the Clemson agency and detailed its findings in the report. The Audit Council is the General Assembly’s inspector general.

The ways Clemson PSA employees frittered away taxpayers’ money include paying excessive hotel rates and driving their personal cars when they could have used university vehicles, the report says.

It also says Clemson PSA, the S.C. Department of Agriculture and the state Forestry Commission duplicate services in some areas.

The most damning evidence of Clemson PSA abusing taxpayers, however, might be what the report exposes about the entity’s salaries. Over a five-year period, from fiscal 2005-06 to last fiscal year, according to the report:

  • The interim dean of Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences received a 107 percent pay raise, to a salary of $200,000;
  • Another PSA administrator bagged a 57 percent raise, bringing that employee’s salary to $183,500; and
  • Two other PSA higher-ups netted 47 percent and 39 percent pay hikes, increasing their salaries to $142,800 and $148,600, respectively.

Other well-paid employees of Clemson’s Public Service Activities division also received substantial raises over the five-year period. The report does not identify those or any other PSA personnel by name.

It also does not say how much could be saved if Clemson overhauled its PSA operation.

Clemson students, in addition to taxpayers, might want to know. The university’s in-state tuition has skyrocketed nearly 111 percent in the past decade, from about $5,800 per year in 2003-04 to about $12,300 this year.

Meanwhile, the report says, “Annual evaluations of an employee’s performance are required by state law and Clemson University policy. However, we found that evaluations of unclassified staff are not being conducted.”

In fact, lack of evaluations “has been an ongoing” problem that Clemson itself identified no less than a decade ago, according to the report.

It cites a 2002 self-study by the university seeking accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. “One of the recommendations in this study was that the effectiveness of all administratorsmust be evaluated periodically,” the Audit Council report says.

It also says many raises are not looked at carefully, either: “Increases for employees earning less than $175,000 or not reporting to the president of the university are not scrutinized formally.”

In some cases, for example, substantial pay raises were dished out based on criteria that included a “demonstrated positive attitude and spirit of service and cooperation,” the report says, quoting a salary increase request form.

The Audit Council called such criteria “subjective” and stated in its report, “According to a PSA official, the amount of the increase is normally a judgment call and no written justification is required to document the reasons for the increase.”

Not enough to make you want to hold your own tiger burn? How about two raises for one promotion? Again from the report: “According to PSA management, receiving two increases in pay for a promotion to one position is standard practice.”

In one more example, the Audit Council discovered that at least two Clemson PSA employees had “lecturer” job titles, but “their duties did not include lecturing or teaching. Giving an employee the title of ‘lecturer’ allows the university to pay that individual any salary, without regard to pay bands.”

In state government, such freewheeling self-enrichment is not uncommon.

But in the case of Clemson’s Public Service Activities division, the practices are a far cry from the university’s founding as a land-grant school dedicated to providing agricultural and mechanical education to the children of relatively poor, rural South Carolina.

In a written response to the report, Clemson President James Barker concedes few of the Audit Council’s findings, instead defending the PSA division in his own spin zone.

“Their (auditors’) comprehensive review clearly demonstrates that PSA is a complex organization that is well-managed, cost-efficient, entrepreneurial, focused on priorities, and providing valuable service to the state of South Carolina,” Barker writes.

In a brief acknowledgment, he does offer that Clemson will establish a formal process to document approval of pay raises and evaluations of “executive-level staff.”

But in reference to Audit Council recommendations that Clemson PSA work with the Department of Agriculture to eliminate duplication of services, Barker says, “We respectfully disagree.”

No such duplication exists, he contends.

Given an opportunity to weigh in on the report, Agriculture said thanks but no thanks.

“The S.C. Department of Agriculture has no additional comments to offer,” Anne Crocker, the department’s general counsel and a Clemson alumnus, wrote in a two-paragraph letter included in the report.

That the agency zipped its lips on the report probably wouldn’t surprise S.C. Sen. Lee Bright. A Republican from Spartanburg County, Bright asked the Audit Council to investigate Clemson PSA in a June 2010 letter. No fewer than 23 other legislators – nine senators and 14 House members – co-signed his letter.

Bright says he sought the probe after a raft of Clemson PSA employees showed up at the State House complex to fight “tooth and nail” against a bill he is sponsoring to transfer the division to the Department of Agriculture.

The senator says Agriculture opposed his bill, too, because the agency did not want to get involved in a political conflict.

Bright’s legislation, S. 252, would move all Clemson PSA funding, personnel and property to the Agriculture agency.

Theoretically, that could lead to more accountability, because – unlike the Clemson administration – the state commissioner who oversees the Agriculture agency is answerable to voters at election time.

Bright says his bill is meant to consolidate and streamline state government services. “As a state I think we specialize in duplication,” he says.

His bill was introduced and referred to the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in January. Bright is a member of that committee, but the panel has not taken any action on his bill, according to the Legislature’s website.

Similarly, no senators have signed onto Bright’s bill as co-sponsors.

He attributes resistance to his bill among lawmakers to a lack of political courage. “Higher education has become an industry all its own,” Bright says, “and it’s a very powerful industry.”

Helping to make that case, Clemson employs two registered lobbyists at the State House. The university spent more than $100,000 on lobbying in 2010, according to State Ethics Commission records.

Bright says some of his colleagues in the Legislature have warned him against upsetting “the institutions”:

“I think the quote I’ve heard the most is, ‘Don’t mess with the Clemson or Carolina nation.’”

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