On April 7, the South Carolina House Education and Public Works Committee voted to move forward with the Senate version of S.38, the Reinforcing College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage (REACH) Act. If enacted, the REACH Act would amend sections of the South Carolina Code of Laws to make certain that all students at public colleges and universities are educated in the core principles of American history and government. As ACTA outlined previously, S.38 would expand the required American history and government curriculum. Among other supplements, it would include the Emancipation Proclamation as an essential document.
ACTA commends South Carolina’s bold steps to strengthen civic education. This legislation is a great achievement and an inspiration for other states.
The path to adoption of the bill, however, illustrates a recurring problem for higher education reform and larger issues of higher education spending priorities. It is disheartening that multiple distinguished institutions of higher education, citing budgetary concerns, would not go the extra step to ensure a truly robust unit on the Civil Rights Movement.
During an earlier committee meeting, representatives from South Carolina’s public universities shared academic and fiscal concerns regarding the inclusion of a requirement for the study of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that was a component earlier versions of the bill. A representative from the University of South Carolina (USC) described existing courses that met the requirements of the proposed legislation and stated that due to the timespan these courses covered, USC could not—and would not—include the Civil Rights Act in their curriculum.
The institutions argued that requiring the study of the Civil Rights Act in the American history curriculum would be a “difficult” and expensive burden. Representative Timothy McGinnis clarified that “Clemson and USC have been working with the authors of both bills” and “the Emancipation Proclamation was substituted [for the Civil Rights Act] more or less to satisfy the institutions’ wishes.” This compromise would allow universities to “keep everything in the history department,” thus avoiding the more expansive interdisciplinary restructuring of courses and curriculum that including the Civil Rights Act would entail.
Although passing the REACH Act must be seen as a major triumph, the objections of the two universities seem preposterous, especially at a time when the understanding of race in America is properly a priority. Is this what our students deserve? Are we truly preparing them for informed and engaged citizenship when universities are unwilling to innovate and create curriculum that ensures that every graduate will have learned about the Civil Rights Act?
According to the Statement of Estimated Fiscal Impact, enacting the version of the bill which included the Civil Rights Act would increase expenditures for public higher education institutions by an estimated $8.7 million in the next four years. Amid the financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, universities’ reluctance to incur additional costs is understandable. However, ACTA firmly believes—especially in trying times such as these—that institutional finances should clearly reflect the prioritization of academics. Some South Carolina universities fail to demonstrate these fiscal priorities.
In April 2019, Clemson University’s head football coach, “Dabo” Swinney, signed a 10-year, $93 million contract extension to become the highest-paid public employee in the country with an annual salary larger than all 50 U.S. governors combined. The second and third highest-paid public employees in South Carolina are collegiate athletic coaches at the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston. For reference, the salary of South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster is $106,078, and the median state household income is $53,199.
And it is not just university coaches that earn exorbitant salaries. South Carolina’s most recent compensation data reveals that over 2,000 four-year public university employees are out-earning Governor McMaster. As of January 2021, these employees were compensated a combined total of $319 million per year, nearly 150 times the estimated annual cost of implementing the REACH Act with the additional Civil Rights Act requirement. Furthermore, from 2016 to 2018 the growth of administrative expenditures outpaced that of instructional spending on a per-student basis at a majority of South Carolina’s four-year public universities. This suggests there may be some misplaced priorities at these institutions.
It is true that university athletics are funded primarily through athletic revenue, and athletic departments sometimes contribute funds to the university’s operations (the USC athletic department generated $3.23 million for the university in 2016). But why should these outsized staff salaries and the escalation of administrative spending be deemed reasonable but the cost of mandating the Civil Rights Act unreasonable?
As South Carolina public universities implement the REACH Act, they must remember that they are, first and foremost, academic institutions. The central responsibility of colleges and universities is to provide students with a high-quality, affordable education. With today’s ever-rising levels of civic illiteracy, it is of the utmost importance to teach students about our nation’s history and government. Student learning should take precedence—especially when budgets are strained. We hope that public institutions will now show the same dedication to robust civic education that the bill’s sponsors and the Legislature demonstrated in passing the REACH Act.