As the controversy over the University of South Carolina’s presidential search heats up, we need to take a closer look at our university’s recent history. In doing so, we can better understand what separates the two sides in this debate. I hope, particularly if you are skeptical of the movement for a new presidential search, that you take the time to read what I have written.
The most important trend in USC’s recent past has been the state legislature cutting university funding. In the early 2000s, the state government was USC’s single largest source of revenue. Today, it contributes barely 10%. The result is a lopsided arrangement where the state legislature retains full control of the Board of Trustees, but does not provide proportionate funding. This budget shortfall has to be made up somehow. Unsurprisingly, groups that have no vote on the board — the students, faculty, staff, and alumni — are asked to pick up the slack. Tuition has risen more than a third. Faculty in many departments are under intense pressure to win more grants, and class sizes have swollen as the student body increased by over 20%.
But it hasn’t been enough. USC’s debt continues to rise, and since we are functionally a private school, the Board has decided to take the same path as most private institutions: lure in large donors. Because retired Gen. Robert Caslen, the former superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, raised $425 million in private donations, some members of the board appear to think that he could rescue USC. But is that true? Although $425 million seems like a great deal, that was over five years. Subtracting what we already receive in donations, the annual budget would increase by less than 3%. An improvement, but nothing spectacular. Many private and public schools regularly receive more than $400 million in a single year. Caslen’s decent fundraising abilities should not blind us to his other flaws (such as his lack of a terminal degree) when more qualified candidates exist.
Regardless, the debate over Caslen’s fundraising abilities gets to the heart of the tension between the board and the university. Why should the alumni, however generous they are, be asked to make up for a budget shortfall caused by the legislature? For that matter, is state Treasurer Curtis Loftis right to call the faculty an enemy of “the taxpayer”, or is educating the youth a valuable service?
And should students be forced to take on crippling debt as class sizes increase? So long as USC remains a public institution, the responsibility falls to the public to fund it properly. If the state of South Carolina no longer sees value in supporting the university, it should release it to self-governance. A university funded by faculty-won grants, alumni donations, and students’ tuition should not answer to a board appointed by an unsupportive legislature. Something has to give.
No single individual or group, not even the legislature, conspired to bring about this financial mess. Decisions that seemed to benefit everyone at the time, but made without regard to historical context, are what put us in our current crisis. My suggestion is this: take a step back. Consider more than just the specific problem you find yourself confronted with. Understand your role in the larger historical process that is loading students with debt, increasing our reliance on private donors, and threatening a loss of accreditation, all in a desperate effort to balance the books. A great university depends on it.