Gov. Haley’s $29,000 football tickets and higher ed reform

By Phil Noble

I love this state, I really do – and that’s why I get so frustrated when we can’t do the obvious right thing for stupid reasons. (Like, say, $29,000 worth of free football tickets — but more on that in a moment.)

It seems to happen a lot and the current prime example of this is how higher education in this state is run, or probably more accurately, not run.

S.C. State has been in the news lately but they are only the latest and best example of the need for a statewide governing body that effectively – and the key word is effectively – oversees higher education in the state.

What we have now is the S.C. Commission on Higher Education and it’s just not working. There are some very competent and diligent folks on the Commission but the problem is they really don’t have much power to actually do anything.

Dr. Layton McCurdy was Dean of MUSC for 11 years and Chairman of the Higher Education Commission from 2005-08, and his comments in a recent column pretty much sum up the problem: “Still we do not have a coordinated system that emphasizes the value to the state rather the benefit to the individual institution… Rather we operate under the philosophy that states, ‘If you’ve got one, I want one.’”

Someone described what happens now as “policy by football tickets.” What this means is that the big schools like USC and Clemson have a huge alumni base that can be mobilized and they have high-paid lobbyists walking around the Statehouse lobby handing out football tickets to state decision makers. Unfortunately, this is a pretty good summary of what happens.

And in case you’re tempted to dismiss all this football stuff as “small potatoes,” just take a quick look at Gov. Nikki Haley’s latest ethics filings, where you’ll find that she declared more than $29,000 worth of Clemson football suites and tickets as gifts in 2014 alone.

Another big part of the problem is how the boards of the public colleges and universities are chosen. It’s done by the legislature, so if you want to be on a board you have to repeatedly go up to Columbia and convince enough legislators to vote for you. What you get is a bunch of folks hanging around the lobby looking for legislators like a pack of teenage boys with overactive hormones at the high school dance, looking to pounce on the next pretty girl that walks by.

Lots of people who would make great college trustees don’t want to go through the personal humiliation of the process and just won’t get involved. So, who you have getting chosen are people who have a high threshold for personal rejection, or who are the brother, sister, friend or barber or someone who knows someone who can call in a favor from some key legislators.

And once they get on the boards, most of them stay a long time – some for more than 40 years. So much for new ideas and fresh perspectives.

So what’s the answer? There is an obvious, proven solution – a board of regents – but it doesn’t have much chance of happening in South Carolina any time soon.

A board of regents has the responsibility to look at higher education based on the needs of the whole state and then has the teeth to enforce their policies. Today, 39 of the 50 states have some sort of board of regents. Though they go by lots of different names – curators, governors, overseers, regents, trustees, or something – they all have the same function of overseeing their state’s higher education system. Among those states where the board of regents seem to be doing an effective job are, you guessed it, Georgia and North Carolina.

The problem with such a straightforward, obvious solution is that no one in a position to make this needed change wants it to happen.

The legislators like the current system because they have the power to appoint the college and university boards, and they like having people (i.e. board candidates) hanging round kissing their ring (or some other body part), telling them how great they are. Plus, they get all the good tickets for the football games – or in the case of Gov. Haley, the football suites.

The big colleges and universities like the system because they have lots of their alumni in the legislature to look after them. Also, if they get in a jam, they can mobilize their alumni, as some alum is bound to be the crucial legislator’s fishing buddy, girlfriend or law partner.

A couple of years ago the presidents of USC, Clemson and MUSC were all lined up at a table in front of a state Senate committee and they were asked by Sen. Gerald Malloy if they were going to at least talk about a board of regents…and they all three sat silently and did not say a word. One observer called it “the silence of the lambs.”

And this isn’t a partisan issue, as both fair-minded Democrats and Republicans have pushed for a change. Mark Sanford at least talked a good game about reform but he never got anywhere, as the legislators didn’t much like him to start with and then Sanford got lost on the Appalachian Trail and that pretty much killed any chance of real reform.

So, there you have it: a big problem with an obvious solution that won’t ever happen because of petty politics and narrow interests – and football tickets.

By some measures, our state’s colleges and universities are sliding backwards, but who cares, right? The football teams are doing great… and Gov. Haley and the legislators are sitting right there on the 50 yard line cheering them on.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform.

Author: Duane Childers

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