Policymakers | Costs

S.C. Governor Takes Parting Shots at Higher Education

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  September 28, 2010 by Eric Kelderman

With just a few months left in his second and final term, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a Republican, is continuing his long battle to reshape public higher education in the state, saying that public colleges charge too much for tuition and spend too much constructing new buildings.

On Tuesday, Governor Sanford hosted an “education summit” in order to expose, he said, some of the “myths” of higher education, such as the idea that colleges should be involved in economic development and that an increase in nonresident students would keep costs lower for in-state students.

The governor argues that while tuition at South Carolina’s public colleges is rising faster than inflation, state tax dollars are being used to pay $9,000 a year for each nonresident student who attends the University of South Carolina or Clemson University. And during the most recent economic downturn, he said, even elite private institutions like Harvard and Yale Universities halted construction projects.

“If institutions with endowments larger than our entire state budget are delaying capital projects in an effort to save money, it makes sense for South Carolina to do the same,” the governor said in a news release this month.

Public colleges are responding that decreasing state appropriations are the real cause of tuition increases, not any kind of building boom. And they have more to lose than just a debate. On Wednesday, the state’s Budget and Control Board, which the governor chairs, will most likely discuss placing a moratorium on campus construction. There is no specific language for the proposal, including whether the measure would include all construction such as repairs and maintenance, said the governor’s spokesman, Benjamin D. Fox.

Catherine T. Sams, chief public-affairs officer for Clemson University, said the idea of a building moratorium is based on “flawed data and flawed ideas.” At Clemson, three-quarters of the buildings are at least a half century old, she said.

Fighting Back

The summit itself featured a panel of state officials, including legislators and higher-education leaders, as well as a representative from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based group. After presentations by the panelists, moderated by the governor, including discussions about tuition, university spending, and the state’s lottery-funded scholarships, audience members were able to ask questions, said William T. Moore, a vice president and chief financial officer for the University of South Carolina system. He attended the event, which was held at a campus of Midlands Technical College in West Columbia. The governor’s office said that more than 450 people attended.

Ms. Sams, who was also at the summit, said there were a large number of supporters of higher education in the audience. The rhetoric at the meeting “was not too damaging,” she said, “and from this governor, that’s the most you can hope for.”

The universities have been trying to counter the governor’s argument with their own set of figures. In response to two news releases from the governor before meeting, the University of South Carolina issued a statement of its own to counter the governor’s arguments. In it, university officials explain that buildings are paid for mostly with private donations and that tuition increases are not even coming close to covering the decrease in state appropriations the institution has seen in recent years.

From the 2008 to the 2010 fiscal years, state appropriations for higher education in South Carolina decreased by 29 percent, the largest decline in the nation, according to figures from the Grapevine project, a national survey of state higher-education spending conducted each year by Illinois State University. State appropriations for the University of South Carolina alone were cut by 47 percent over the past two years, according to university figures. Tuition for resident undergraduate students increased 3.6 percent for the 2009-10 school year and nearly 7 percent for the current academic year.

Mr. Moore said the university was not trying to be argumentative but wanted to go to the debate armed with facts and figures.

Same Battle, Different Day

Governor Sanford, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Furman University, a private institution in Greenville, has tried before to overhaul public education in the state. During his first term, the governor proposed giving colleges the choice to be free from all state regulations if they would also agree to be cut loose from state appropriations. Both the colleges and the General Assembly rejected the governor’s proposals. The governor also proposed a tuition cap that would be tied to the Higher Education Price Index, a measure that was also rejected by legislators, said Mr. Fox, the governor’s spokesman. “He’s been taking different bites at the apple for eight years,” he said.

University officials, however, characterize the governor’s aims in less friendly terms.

“For some reason, we became the bad guys early on,” said Ms. Sams, of Clemson. “I don’t know if he just doesn’t see the value of public education.”

But if the state’s public colleges are feeling a little bruised by the governor’s attacks, they shouldn’t feel alone. Governor Sanford has a long history of engaging in seemingly quixotic battles and public-relations stunts. In 2004, after a contentious legislative session, he carried two pigs into a news conference at the Statehouse to protest the size of the state budget. The pigs left droppings on the carpet, and the event enraged several lawmakers.

In 2009, the governor played political roulette with the state’s federal stimulus money, refusing to apply for its share of $40-billion meant to shore up spending on public schools and higher education unless he could use the money to pay down state debt. He balked at applying for the money even after the General Assembly passed a law requiring the governor to do so. The State Supreme Court quickly ruled that the governor had to apply for the money, which he did.

But higher-education officials are wondering why the governor is continuing to pursue higher education so late in his tenure. Neither of the gubernatorial candidates—Nikki Haley, a Republican and a state representative, and Vincent A. Sheheen, a Democrat and a state senator—have taken strong positions on higher education, Mr. Moore said.

It’s equally unclear if the governor’s positions will sway any legislators in the next lawmaking session: Governor Sanford has been perpetually unpopular with many in the General Assembly.

“It could be he’s just got a passion for this,” Mr. Moore said. “We don’t understand.”

Mr. Fox said the governor is simply seeking to lay the groundwork for the next governor and legislature. “This is a discussion that needs to begin now,” he said.


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