Political Tentacles

March 6, 2014

Inside Insight

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ariail political tentacles
What do a liberal arts college, a publicly funded medical school and a private law school have in common? Nothing, except that they are all in Charleston. That is apparently reason enough for high-powered Charleston legislators to push for the creation of another “economic development research” empire that has no evident purpose but would have a high price tag and an even bigger cost to students.
The proposed merger between the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina was the brainchild of Charleston legislators, who claim it’s necessary because the business community wants it. In stating “economic development” as the reason, these lawmakers dispensed with the pretense that their goal for higher education learning and conceded it’s about training workers for companies (though I’ve seen no explanation by any company as to the need for this merger).
Faculty members at both schools have publicly stated their opposition to the merger, saying it would take them off-mission at the expense of the students. In response, House Speaker Bobby Harrell says there must be a comprehensive research institution in the Lowcountry. No specifics have been offered as to why, or what would be the potential cost.
As bad as this idea is, the addition of a private law school to the merger mix is dangerous. Again, some Charleston lawmakers – led by Speaker Harrell – clearly want to add the private Charleston School of Law (CSL) to the education empire, so they are “encouraging” the Commission on Higher Education (CHE) to deny the potential buyer of the law school a license to operate it.
The CSL is not a public institution. It was privately founded and funded, and the plan was for it to remain private. The founders even addressed that in their original license agreement, stating that they would not attempt to make the school public and that, if they did so, the CHE could revoke their license. Today, the CSL is an accredited law school owned by private investors who decided two years ago to sell the school. Enter private buyer InfiLaw, owner of three other accredited law schools. The negotiations are between two private entities. There is no role for the state, except for the CHE to grant the license to the new owner, upon which the sale is contingent.
The CHE has in place objective criteria that any higher-ed institution must meet in order to receive an operating license. The criteria focus on issues such as ensuring that the institution has a tuition bond to protect students, that facilities comply with local regulations, that data is secure, and that the program is one that reasonably achieves the state goal. The criteria are not subjective and the CHE does not have the authority to deny a license for reasons other than failure to meet the criteria.
Charleston politicians have reportedly written a letter to the CHE questioning, among other things, the soundness of InfiLaw’s finances – this is beyond the CHE criteria.  InfiLaw representatives publicly stated that the company has already arranged the required tuition bond, and that the company is on solid financial ground (not that that’s any business of the Speaker – if the buyers are satisfied, and the CHE criteria met then that should be the end of the matter).  InfiLaw owns three other accredited law schools, and this “due diligence” by the Speaker and others seems far beyond not only the CHE criteria but also beyond what lawmakers apparently ask many of the companies to whom they give away millions in taxpayer subsidies.
Taxpayers already fund one law school, and our higher ed system is larger and more expensive than it should be. We don’t need another publicly funded law school, and taxpayers can’t afford to buy one. Even if this were a good idea – and it isn’t – legislators have no business trying to acquire a private asset by souring a deal through a licensing agent. The interference in the private market is outrageous, but the involvement of the licensing process in killing a private sector deal would set a dangerous precedent that any cadre of politicians can kill a private deal if they feel like it.
Our state’s education system already struggles, in no small part because the mission of the universities has clearly shifted from teaching students to planning the economy. Fewer than half of students graduate in six years from the majority of SC colleges. It’s time to restore excellence in education as the mission for our higher education, not create a conglomerate that focuses on economic development as its role. And we certainly shouldn’t allow powerful politicians to interfere in the private marketplace to do it.