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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)
The presidents of three public universities are asking the state for more building funds and less oversight of their building projects from the state Commission on Higher Education.
But the commission says it just wants to do its job protecting public education and taxpayer money.
"The commission represents the greater good of higher education," said Tim Hofferth, chairman of the governor-appointed oversight commission. "If not us, then who?"
University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides joined the presidents of Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina on Feb. 22 before the Senate Education Committee. Pastides complained about what he saw as "redundant" oversight being proposed by the CHE, covering projects that must also be approved by the Joint Bond Review Committee or Student Financial Aid Association.
Meanwhile, Statehouse may cut the CHE out of the vetting process entirely for most on-campus construction and renovation projects, at least for next year. House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, has introduced a budget proviso that would direct the CHE to "only evaluate true, new capital projects for institutions of higher learning."
This proviso would let colleges go around the CHE on renovations of existing academic buildings as well as construction and renovation of athletic facilities, including a $31.8 million football stadium overhaul at Coastal Carolina University that the commission repeatedly rejected last year.
The bigger picture, according to Hofferth, is that the CHE functioned in the past as a "rubber stamp" for capital projects at the state's colleges and universities, contributing to soaring costs passed along to students through tuition and fee hikes. The cost of attending South Carolina public colleges has outstripped inflation and income growth since 2006, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
The CHE recently adopted a "financial matrix" rubric for assessing proposed projects and the financial health of the requesting institutions. Hofferth said the commission is just taking its existing role of oversight more seriously. The commission is also asking the state for funding to hire accountants and other staff to delve into colleges' proposals.
USC Chief Communications Officer Wes Hickman said the CHE's new approach will just gum up progress, leading to even higher costs for universities.
"There are already these layers of oversight that are prescribed by the state, and our argument is that the Commission on Higher Education should not add more duplicative levels of oversight to that, because in the end that costs time and money and it prevents us from providing the best services for our students," Hickman said.
Last week, the three university presidents also asked lawmakers to pass a taxpayer-funded capital bond bill that would help pay for buildings and renovations on their campuses. South Carolina used to pass a higher-ed bond bill roughly every other year, but it has not passed one since 2001, leading colleges to look elsewhere for construction funds.
Pastides, Clemson President James Clements and MUSC President David Cole have beaten the drum for a capital bond bill since 2015, when they co-authored an editorial in The State citing recent higher-ed bond bills in North Carolina worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Reps. White and Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, introduced a State Capital Improvement Bonds bill in April 2016, but it fizzled in committee.
As one example of what's at stake, Hickman said USC's current medical school, which rents space on the grounds of a VA hospital in Columbia, is overdue for $75 million worth of renovations. University leaders favor constructing a new building over repairing the existing one, but they'll need a big infusion of money to make that happen.
"We need a new facility that reflects the realities of modern-day healthcare, modern-day instruction in medicine," Hickman said.
The presidents also asked for continued scholarship support from the South Carolina Education Lottery, which has provided nearly $3 billion worth of scholarships and grants since 2002. More than three-quarters of lottery funds have gone to higher-education programs and scholarships since the lottery's inception, with most of the remainder going to K-12 schools.
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