Research University Presidents Silent on Board of Regents for S.C.

February 23, 2012

Investigative Reports

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South Carolina SealThe presidents of South Carolina’s three research universities came prepared Wednesday to talk to a state Senate panel about their funding woes and an expanding role their institutions play in state economic development efforts.

But the university chieftains evidently were not ready to discuss a widely supported idea for reforming the state’s higher education system to make it more efficient and accountable – a board of regents.

No, the college CEO triumvirate passed on that one and instead left it to … state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt to address it?

It’s true. But it made sense – in that Hitt was the only other person available to the presidents in their stead at that moment.

This little bit of buck passing occurred during a Senate Education Committee meeting.

During the hearing, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, Clemson University President Jim Barker and Medical University of South Carolina President Ray Greenberg summarized their budget requests for their schools for next fiscal year.

Among the three, Clemson is seeking the most dramatic funding increase – a 96 percent hike in state dollars, from $58.9 million this fiscal year to $115.5 million for the 2012-13 budget year that begins July 1.

“Clemson University is requesting that operating budget reductions received since June 30, 2008, approximately $55.8M (million) be restored,” the school’s budget proposal says. “These state recurring funds will be applied to faculty salaries and fringe benefits.”

Although Clemson’s state funding, like that of virtually all publicly funded higher eds in South Carolina, has fallen drastically, its overall revenue has grown significantly, state budgets show. From 2008-09 to this fiscal year, Clemson’s total funding increased by about $215 million, despite the drop in state dollars.

Much of that positive cash flow came from large tuition increases.

Suffice to say, Clemson doesn’t exactly play up those facts in its funding request for next year.

USC, meanwhile, is requesting a modest state funding increase of 1.6 percent over its $94.9 million this year.

MUSC is not asking for any additional state dollars over what the school was appropriated this year.

Hitt was the lone addition to the committee meeting agenda.

So why would the state commerce secretary testify during a hearing on the three research universities’ budget requests?

Two words: economic development.

At least, that was a top takeaway in listening to Pastides, Barker and Greenberg pitch their budget plans for 2012-13, and Hitt’s input on the schools working with the agency he oversees, the Department of Commerce.

“We continue to hit home runs through the SmartState program,” Pastides told the committee. He was referring to the undertaking previously known as the S.C. Centers of Economic Excellence and generally known as the endowed chairs program, which supports research in concentrated areas.

Barker: “With your support, the research sector can be a key component to economic development.”

Greenberg: “It’s only wise to protect the technology that’s coming out of our three campuses, through patenting.”

Hitt: “We believe everything we do needs to be company-centered, or (industry) sector-centered.”

In comparison, there was little discussion by Pastides, Barker and Greenberg of bolstering academic standards, improving retention and graduation rates, working more closely with public schools to elevate their performance and similar education-centered issues.

And when the conversation did turn to a topic along those lines, the presidents of the big three were all crickets. It happened when members of the Education Committee posed questions to them.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, asked the college presidents whether they were going to talk about South Carolina going to a board of regents. TheFreeDictionary.com defines a board of regents as “an independent governing body that oversees a state’s public colleges and universities.”

Many states operate under such a system. In South Carolina, however, separate boards of trustees govern many of the state’s 30-plus public institutions.

Critics say that arrangement fosters parochialism and duplicative programs and services. A board of regents, its adherents contend, better serves efficiency – and therefore students, families and taxpayers – by looking out for the best interests of a state as a whole.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, advocated a board of regents for South Carolina throughout his two-term administration.

Malloy, a Democrat, demonstrated that the issue transcends partisan politics.

The senator said he has heard a lot of opinions that South Carolina has too many colleges and could benefit from a board of regents. “Because from what I’ve seen, it works,” Malloy said.

With board members from at least two of the universities on hand, the three presidents fell silent when Malloy asked them if they were going to discuss the issue. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Pastides passed the ball to Hitt.

“I can understand why my three colleagues are not answering that question,” the commerce secretary and former longtime BMW executive said, alluding to the board members present.

“I don’t think any one of the four of us came here today prepared to discuss it,” Hitt added.

In making his executive budget proposals for the current fiscal year during his final year in office, Sanford again encouraged the General Assembly to create a board of regents to control costs and set priorities.

“The board would develop a coordinated higher education system and would supervise all affairs of the constituent institutions,” Sanford’s 2011-12 executive budget says.

“Additionally, we believe it is important that (a) South Carolina Board of Regents be allowed to set tuition and enrollment levels at the institutions, so we can ensure that college is affordable and accessible for our students.”

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