The S.C. House voted Tuesday to oust S.C. State University’s trustees.
Meanwhile, a House proposal to abolish the state Commission on Higher Education, propelled in part by displeasure at that agency’s failure to raise red flags about S.C. State’s management, appears likely to fail in the Senate.
Frustrated by S.C. State’s $17 million deficit, House members approved replacing the school’s current board with five trustees appointed by the state Budget and Control Board.
The Senate passed its own proposal to oust S.C. State’s trustees last week. The Senate bill would have new board members appointed by lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley.
“What we do want the body to understand is that we can’t maintain the status quo,” state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, told House members before the proposal passed.
She noted S.C. State is on probation with its accreditors, adding the school has been told improvements need to be made to its governance and finances. The accreditation issue is important because students cannot get federal loans to go to unaccredited schools. “It is our understanding that very little progress has been made,” Cobb-Hunter told House members.
“It’s really common sense,” state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, said of the House’s action to replace the school’s board. “When people are provided with the facts, they recognize there is a serious problem that needed to be dealt with.”
S.C. State trustees met Tuesday but did not announce a severance settlement with suspended president Thomas Elzey, who has sued the school for breach of contract, claiming he has been made a scapegoat for the school’s woes.
Meanwhile, the House is also sending a signal to the Commission on Higher Education.
Merrill successfully pushed to defund that state agency Monday, taking away its $3 million budget.
Merrill proposed Tuesday using the state budget, which the House is debating this week, to replace that coordinating commission with a stronger board of regents that would oversee the state’s public colleges.
However, Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, who was presiding over the House for part of Tuesday, ruled a board of regents could not be created via the vehicle of the state budget.
The House’s proposal to defund the Commission on Higher Education likely will hit a roadblock in the state Senate.
Citing Senate rules, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said Tuesday that changes to the agency should be made through standalone legislation, not as part of the state budget.
Leatherman said there might be reason to take action against the commission, adding he has been frustrated with it in the past.
The executive director of the commission said Tuesday that he shares some of legislators’ frustrations. “I share many of them with the same conviction and passion,” said Richard Sutton.
Whether the state agency that oversees higher education is a weak commission or coordinating council or a stronger board of regents is “a question of the authorities that the Legislature grants to that state agency,” Sutton said.
Sutton said a board of regents in a state with a strong central government — like Georgia, where he worked for many years — has the authority to hire and fire university and college presidents. “That board supersedes any institutional board of trustees.”
However, South Carolina has opted for a weaker commission with the Legislature itself sometimes deciding higher education policy.
A House bill to create a board of regents, sponsored by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, was pre-filed in December. A similar bill also exists in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington.
Still, conflicts can emerge between schools, regulators and lawmakers, Sutton added.
“There is a natural tension between the desires of an institution to be autonomous ... the state’s responsibility to have an oversight agency that ensures some level of efficiency ... and the Legislature’s own interest in establishing a role for itself in setting educational actions,” Sutton said.