A South Carolina legislative panel has decided against pursuing a new board of regents to oversee all of the state’s public colleges and universities.
Back in March, Republicans in the state House of Representatives fired a warning shot against the current Commission on Higher Education, voting to eliminate the agency that coordinates colleges and universities in South Carolina. Their Senate counterparts rejected the move, so House leaders instead voted to create the Higher Education Governance Ad Hoc Committee to study the idea and consider replacing the commission with a stronger Board of Regents.
“There was clearly a lack of leadership and lack of focus at the commission,” State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said. “And that’s frustrating to the legislature, when they’re supposed to be the one empowered to coordinate all of our public colleges and universities.”
A bipartisan group of legislators has been pushing the regents proposal as a way to make higher education spending in South Carolina more efficient. The idea is that a single board in South Carolina would make decisions on college construction, academic programs, and other issues that are currently handled by each institute’s respective board of trustees. House Republican leaders, particularly current budget chairman Rep. Brian White, have criticized the amount of construction and maintenance work being approved at South Carolina’s 32 state-owned universities, institutions, and technical colleges.
The idea to eliminate the commission gained momentum after financial troubles began to spiral out of control at South Carolina State University. Lawmakers said the commission should have done more to warn them and the public about the school’s worsening situation. But the commission’s supporters said legislators should strengthen and better fund the current commission, rather than gut it.
The ad hoc committee this month decided to focus on revamping the current Commission on Higher Education, saying a new incoming director could take the oversight agency in a new direction. Commission members are hoping to choose a new director early next year, according to its chairman Tim Hofferth.
“The committee members felt… that the Commission on Higher Education has really reinvented itself,” Taylor said. “And its in the process of reinventing itself.”
Interim director Gary Glenn is asking the legislature for more flexibility in the agency’s roughly $1.6 million administrative budget. He noted lawmakers have put more than 160 mandates and budget requirements on how the commission can spend its total $68 million in funding, including some he said were placed in the budget decades ago and have become antiquated.
“It is apparent that our current administrative budget will not provide the resources we need to sustain our successes or address our shortfalls,” Glenn told the ad hoc committee on Dec. 14. “We need additional staff and we need additional support funds if we are to succeed.”
Of the $68 million the agency received for Fiscal Year 2015, $61 million is set aside as scholarships for students, $3.7 million is directed to other agencies, and $1.3 is meant to be awarded as grants.
Hofferth estimated the commission is not able to complete 23 of its annual legislative-required action items due to a lack of funding or unrealistic requirements.
The commission is working on a proposed budget for 2016 that it says would include the actual costs of unfunded mandates, although any decisions on funding would be made by legislators next year. The committee also asked the agency to draft a list of funding requirements or laws its staff believes should be modified or eliminated.