Clemson Sustainability Program in Line for $445,000 in State Funds

January 25, 2012

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA Clemson University program that at least one legislator thought would be better suited for state government was recommended to receive nearly $450,000 in state funding last week.

The S.C. Commission on Higher Education got approval from the Joint Other Funds Oversight Committee on Jan. 19 to present a request to the Office of State Budget for $445,240 for Clemson’s “Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development,” part of the SmartState program.

In late November, the committee recommended $868,199 for Clemson‘s sustainable development chair. In order to request state funds for an endowed chair, an institution must have non-state matching funds on hand.

If the latest amount is approved by the Office of State Budget, Clemson will have $1,313,439 in state funds, plus an equal amount in private funds, for its sustainable development chair.

Established in 2002, the SmartState program uses state lottery money and non-state matches to pay for high-priced professors and research centers at the state’s three public research universities – the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina.

There currently are more than four dozen approved research centers among the three universities. SmartState provides grants of $2 million to $5 million to each qualifying center, with the idea of attracting new businesses to South Carolina through research in such fields as science and medicine, according to program literature.

The $4 million sustainable development endowed chair, the first such position in Clemson’s Center of Economic Excellence in Sustainable Development, was approved in 2010.

Clemson has 18 months from that date to secure $4 million in non-state pledges, and 78 months to realize the match, pull the money down and hire a chair for the program, according to Julie Carullo, director of governmental affairs for the Commission on Higher Education.

The center was created to develop new technologies to foster sustainability, protect the state’s natural resources and encourage so-called smart growth.

The focus of the center is the Intelligent River Project, which emphasizes development of hardware, software and modeling infrastructure to support “real-time management of water resources across South Carolina,” according to a school description.

More than 75 Clemson faculty members and students in areas such as wetland ecology, hydrology, landscape architecture, computer sciences, computer engineering and environmental toxicology are collaborating on the project, it added.

Clemson has received two large private commitments for the center: Tom and Becky Hash pledged $2 million, and Glenn and Heather Hilliard pledged $1 million.

While the Joint Other Funds Oversight Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Office of State Budget approve the request for the additional funding for the center, Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, had questions.

“I’m going to support this; this is a good project,” Bryant said. “(But) I don’t understand why Clemson is doing this; I would think this would fall under the realm of DNR (S.C. Department of Natural Resources) or DHEC (S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control).”

Bryant went on to ask when the Commission on Higher Education was going to appear before the committee to make a request to pay down debt or lower tuition for students, instead of only asking for money.

“It just seems like we’re spending and spending and spending and spending,” he said.

Fellow committee member David Thomas, R-Greenville, said that in this instance the Commission on Higher Education was simply following procedure.

“When you get matching funds, you have to come with the match in hand … and say, ‘Here’s our match; we need the transfer now, which has already been approved by the endowed chairs board.’”

Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said he had some heartburn over the fact that a sizable chunk of state money was about to be appropriated, but as yet no chair for the center had been hired.

Gene Eidson, a professor of biological sciences at Clemson and a moving force behind the center, said the school is in the process of trying to fill the chair.

“The problem we have is we’re going after very limited talent, and we have to have the money in hand in order to attract the caliber of person,” he said.

Smith said he understood but was wrestling with the question of “do we fund the money to get the talent, or do have the person in order to fund the money?”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.