By Bobby Mann
A Recent Phenomenon
Higher education officials and proponents may take some solace in the fact that the current situation is something of an anomaly. There was a time in South Carolina when a legislator did all he could to help is alma mater. For example, Representative Solomon Blatt, a graduate of the University of South Carolina and a Democrat, was a longtime speaker of the House and used his office and influence to benefit the University of South Carolina.
Rep. Blatt served on the university's board of trustees from 1935 to 1947, and the campus physical-education center, which was built in 1971, bears his name. Another example is Senator Edger Brown, a graduate of Clemson University, who was a longtime Clemson trustee and president pro tempore. In the 1950s he received an honorary degree from the university. There are some instances today of state legislators working to maintain their ties to their universities, but not to the extent shown by Rep. Blatt and Sen. Brown.
A Case of Waning Loyalty?
Current legislators, in their defense, have stated that this is not just a case of loyalty and that they must first consider the wishes of their constituents. However, there are other factors at play here as well, such as the decreasing number of legislators that represent universities and colleges, and the growing partisan divide that has occurred over the past ten years. At one time state legislators were elected by county. This meant that a university, such as the University of South Carolina, which is located in Richland County, had a sizeable number of representatives.
Today, however, that is not the case. Representatives are elected by district, which means the University of South Carolina has less representatives than it used to have and, consequently, less influence. Additionally, the state is increasingly in the hands of the Republican Party. Governor Nikki R. Haley, a graduate of Clemson University and a Republican, has not placed an emphasis on higher education initiatives and there seems to be no change in this approach any time soon. Democrats, meanwhile, who could provide some support to the state's higher education institutions, are so marginalized that they are forced to accept that South Carolina is effectively a one-party state.
While it may seem that South Carolina's institutions of higher education are in dire straits, they are still better off than many universities and colleges nationwide. Last year, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association reported that tax support for public colleges was only slightly below the average nationwide. In contrast, for the fiscal year 2008, the percentage of money spent on higher education was above the national average. Additionally, lawmakers have shown some signs of life and have sought to protect the state's public schools from potentially harmful legislation.
Former Governor Mark Sanford, a graduate of Furman University, a private institution, and a Republican, proposed that public schools should be cut from all state regulations as well as a tuition cap tied to inflation. The catch was that they also had to agree to be free of all state appropriations. This was rejected by the legislature. A second failed attempt by the then-governor saw him try to use money that was meant for public schools and higher education to pay down state debt. A law passed by the General Assembly in 2009 forced Gov. Sanford to apply for these funds. The State Supreme Court upheld the law.
Added to these instances, numerous bills designed to limit and intervene in academic governance and affairs have never seen daylight, and amid the political divisiveness there are some lawmakers who are attempting to buck the trend. In 2002, a bipartisan effort lead by Robert W. Harrell Jr., current speaker of the House, and Rep. David H. Wilkins, then speaker of the House, made sure that lottery money used for higher education would also help to pay for endowed chairs in science at the state's research universities. The move echoed the intent of former legislators, such as Rep. Blatt and Sen. Brown, and, more importantly, provided some solidity to the increasingly shaky future for public institutions of higher education in South Carolina.
Public colleges and universities in South Carolina aren't the only schools to see less education dollars. Learn how the University of Washington in Seattle is dealing with a $200 million cut in state funding.