Cindi Ross Scoppe

When SC colleges say their trustees deserve to be wined & dined, watch out

WE NEED to talk about the deeply disturbing way Clemson and MUSC responded to the mildest of criticism about the outrageous amounts of public money their trustees have spent entertaining themselves.

By the state inspector general’s calculations, Clemson trustees spent $700,000 in public money in five years on meals, entertainment and travel to board meetings and athletic events. Among the expenditures were $13,000 on two dinners during a meeting in Charleston and more than $100,000 “to cheer on the Tigers at out-of-state football games.”

MUSC trustees spent $655,000 during the same period, according to an earlier inspector general’s report. That included what Charleston’s Post and Courier described as “ritzy hotels, gourmet meals and top-shelf liquor.” A going-away dinner for two trustees rang up at $6,400, a Christmas banquet cost $37,430, and small groups of trustees split bottles of wine that cost $90, $95 and $160.

It was all perfectly legal because each year, as part of the state budget, the Legislature exempts universities from the normal state meal reimbursement limits of $25 per day when the money comes from foundations — which our state Supreme Court defines as public money. But, as the Clemson report explained, it’s a bad idea to spend public money so lavishly because “Excessive expenses, real or perceived, damage the trust and confidence of Clemson stakeholders, to include students, donors, and taxpayers.”

The MUSC report elaborated: “The $160 bottle of wine purchase is a symptom — the root cause is a generous $163/day meal policy creating the latitude for such purchases inconsistent with the public’s view of a state official’s meal expense. The same public optic raises suspicions of abuse when MUSC, a state agency, incurs event expenses more social in nature, to include recurring alcohol purchases to stock a hotel hospitality suite.”

And the schools’ response? Both highlighted that “nothing illegal” part and made varying types of promises to make varying types of change. But rather than bank on the fact that nothing much ever comes of audits in this state, both schools felt compelled to justify the spending.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Read the Clemson inspector general’s report

Read the MUSC inspector general’s report

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“It must be noted,” Clemson said in its official response, which sounded a lot like MUSC’s response, “that Trustees personally have collectively donated more than $24 million to Clemson.”

It must be noted.

Set aside the fact that people who have the wherewithal to donate more than $24 million almost certainly have the wherewithal to buy their own dinner. And wine. That response is like me saying I work really hard, and since I don’t get paid for all those extra hours I put in, it’s fine for me to go out with friends from time to time and charge the meals to the newspaper.

Or like then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell saying it was fine to bill his campaign account for flying himself up and down the Eastern seaboard on state business. And personal business. And making up trips that never occurred. Since he worked so hard for the state, and didn’t bill taxpayers for his trips.

Or like lawyer-legislators in the old days, who sacrificed so much to serve our state, so there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with accepting huge retainers, for which they were never asked to do any work, from the power company and the phone company and other businesses that needed to be in the good graces of the Legislature.

What you don’t do is decide that the university or friends of the university or the state or anybody else owes you anything for the tremendous sacrifices you make.

Again, the trustees’ expenditures were perfectly legal. But concluding that you’re entitled to use public money to pay for those “pricey meals, expensive bottles of wine and luxury hotel rooms” is, in fact, the seed from which corruption sprouts. Not always, of course. But when honest people become corrupt, it often starts with telling themselves: I do so many good things that I deserve to be rewarded; those rewards are miniscule compared to all I sacrifice.

Well, no. If you deserve more compensation, you need to make that case. If you’re an employee, you make the case to your boss. If you’re a legislator, you introduce legislation to change the law, and convince your colleagues — and your constituents. If you’re a trustee at a public college, you make the case to the Legislature that you deserve to be paid.

Or else you might consider resigning.

Last I checked, people were lining up to be allowed to make the sacrifice of serving on the boards at Clemson and MUSC.

What you don’t do is decide that the university or friends of the university or the state or anybody else owes you anything for the tremendous sacrifices you make.

Last time I checked, people were lining up to be allowed to make the sacrifice of serving on the boards at Clemson and MUSC. And even at USC, which manages to keep its board full even though it apparently doesn’t have such out-of-control reimbursement policies.

Like university officials, I am disturbed by the way the Legislature has underfunded our colleges — since forever, but especially since the recession — and then complained when the schools raise tuition to plug the holes that creates in their budgets. But lawmakers are not convinced by studies that show the direct correlation between higher tuition rates and lower state funding. The last thing our colleges should do is give legislators any reason to believe they’ve got money to burn.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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