Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A catastrophe by design: SC Higher Education Commission doing exactly what Legislature taught it to do

USUALLY, when we have a catastrophe involving a state agency, it’s because the agency didn’t do its job. Think DSS or the Revenue Department or the old Employment Security Commission.

But sometimes the catastrophe is the result of the agency doing precisely what the Legislature taught it to do.

The problems at S.C. State University involve just such a situation.

I don’t mean that S.C. State did what the Legislature taught it to do — although you could argue that the Legislature’s inattention taught trustees and administrators that they could do anything they wanted to. Rather, I’m referring to the Commission on Higher Education, which is being blamed for being a cheerleader rather than an overseer, for having not identified the problem of runaway spending before it became catastrophic.

In our Sunday editorial, my colleague Warren Bolton noted that the Legislature has “routinely overruled and, in some instances, disempowered” the agency, and that’s absolutely true. As far as it goes. But it goes much further than that, and it’s difficult to fully comprehend how unrealistic it is to expect much of anything from the CHE unless you understand how legislators and the colleges have treated it over the years.

The Legislature has gone through phases in its approach to higher education, sometimes favoring a bit more accountability and centralized control over the individual colleges, sometimes less. But unlike my home state of North Carolina, widely accepted as having a far superior higher education system, South Carolina never has had a board of regents to oversee colleges and universities. That’s another way of saying we’ve never had a system of higher education.

Instead, we have an agency to “coordinate” higher education, which can mean more or less depending on precisely what phase the Legislature is in and what the agency wants to make of it. As commissioner from 1987 through 1997, Fred Sheheen wanted to make a lot of it, and he moved the agency from simply coordinating disparate functions of 33 public colleges into a more active role of consumer watchdog. He liked to say the commission was an advocate and a regulator. (If the name sounds familiar, it should: He’s the brother of then-House Speaker Bob Sheheen and the father of current state Sen. Vincent Sheheen.)

Predictably, the colleges and universities didn’t like the regulator role, and since college trustees have to amass legislators’ votes to win their seats, they tend to be well-connected. And by the early ’90s, with Mr. Sheheen exerting more influence over how colleges spent money — telling Clemson it couldn’t spend millions of dollars building a golf course and criticizing its $1 million severance package to a former football coach, and taking on USC’s Holderman-era excesses, for example — these well-connected trustees had had enough of him.

Big-business interests with ties to Clemson and SCANA organized a campaign to replace the agency with one controlled by the colleges. After a two-year-fight, lawmakers shrank the commission’s governing body from 18 members to 14 and reserved one seat for a trustee from the research universities, one seat for a trustee from the four-year universities and colleges, one for a trustee from the technical colleges and one for a representative of private colleges.

When the legislation passed, Cathy Novinger, then a SCANA executive and the leader of the lobbying campaign, announced that the commission’s days as a regulatory agency were over. And at the first meeting of the reconstituted commission, USC Trustee Chairman Eddie Floyd led an assault on Mr. Sheheen, by demoting him to “acting commissioner” and launching a search for a replacement.

Within a year, Mr. Sheheen was gone, replaced by a new director (the title also was changed) whose name I cannot recall, who soon was replaced by another director whose name I cannot recall (if I ever even knew it), and so on and so on.

In the nearly two decades since, there have been several business-backed efforts to make further changes to the agency — some attempting to take away even more power, some attempting to reinstate it — but no significant changes have succeeded.

My colleague Brad Warthen summed up the situation nicely six years after Mr. Sheheen’s departure, when the Big Three research universities decided that even the emasculated CHE had too much power, and tried to break free entirely from its grasp:

The CHE has just enough power to be a minor irritant to the universities. What it cannot do is set or implement a vision for higher education in the state. A story told by Dr. Ulmer-Sottong (a CHE official) illustrates this. She said when it learned that the Big Three wanted to collaborate on research, the CHE asked that they provide the commission with a set of indicators so that it could measure whether they were achieving their goals by “collaboratively working together.” (The CHE is very big on statistics and indicators.)

I knew what was coming next: She said the Big Three refused. Of course they did, because they could. In their position, I would have refused, too.

All of which brings us back to the House vote last week to dismantle the CHE. Should the Senate go along with that plan? Absolutely, if it replaces it with another body — whatever you want to call it — that has the mandate, authority and will to transform our confederation of competing and duplicative colleges into a system of higher education, which can make the best use of the extremely limited resources the Legislature provides it. Maybe it ought to be dismantled even if it isn’t replaced with anything. After all, we’ve already got an agency that collects statistics.

What the Senate — and the House — shouldn’t do is blame the Commission on Higher Education for its failure to do what the Legislature has repeatedly refused to allow it to do. If there’s anyone to blame for the fact that we don’t have a dog keeping watch over our colleges and universities, it’s the Legislature.