July 23, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Whose university is it anyway?

Higher ed regrets governor’s veto


On Monday, Governor Henry McMaster vetoed a welter of items in the budget that was passed by the legislature last week, including a proviso that touched upon the authority of the Commission on Higher Education.

Last week, a Nerve opinion piece, “How to hamstring a watchdog,” laid out the case that the Commission on Higher Education was finding its spine by pushing back on some state university expansion plans that it thought weren’t properly funded.

The legislature had struck back, inserting a proviso in the budget that took away some of CHE’s role “by suspending its comments and recommendations on any auxiliary, athletic, maintenance, and renovation or permanent improvement projects.”

After that Nerve piece, Clemson University’s vice president for university relations, Mark Land, emailed us to say he had a different take on several points.

First, rather than CHE playing a stronger role in oversight of university borrowing and spending, Land said, the commission was simply trying “to increase and expand its authority,” when state higher education was already subject to “considerable and effective oversight.”

Second, Land said, When Clemson decides to construct an athletics facility such as its $55 million football operations center, “it does so with privately raised funds and/or athletic revenue bonds that are repaid solely by the money generated by Clemson Athletics and which carry zero risk to state taxpayers.”

On the matter of whose money a state university spends, McMaster, in his veto message, saw it a little differently.

“Every building, brick, fixture and square foot of our public institutions belongs to the people of South Carolina,” the governor stated. “The CHE must be allowed to exercise its oversight authority.”

Land, speaking by phone, said Clemson was “obviously disappointed” that McMaster let CHE retain what powers it had. There’s no question that Clemson is a public institution, Land said, but, “in the case, for example, of our athletics programs, our operation is completely self-sufficient — through ticket sales, through our media deals, through fundraising from our alumni.”

CHE guidelines, he said, “are calling for universities to come to the table with 50 percent of the funding” for projects such as the football center and a new tennis center it’s proposing, but, Land said, “we can do better by investing the cash that we have to put toward a project in the market and float revenue bonds.”

As for that “zero risk”: Should Clemson default, or one of the other state colleges or universities, wouldn’t the state — the taxpayers — bail it out?

Speaking the same day McMaster was accompanying the champion Clemson Tigers to the White House, Land said, “Our prospects of default are very, very, very limited. Not all universities in the state have the same financial strength.”

Even considering operating expenses for a new facility that is funded in part by revenue bonds, including insurance, utilities, and personnel costs, athletics at Clemson, Land said, “is self-sustaining.”

In a statement subsequently emailed, Land added, “One point I wanted to be clear on: Clemson isn’t seeking special treatment on this issue. We simply feel that CHE’s oversight in this case doesn’t do the service to taxpayers it claims.”

The problem, if there is one, is what may come from arguing for best cases. Clemson has a very good story.

So, too, though, does CHE.

“I think it’s incredibly important that the state has an independent agency with the authority to provide oversight and coordination for its higher education system,” says CHE’s interim executive director, Jeff Schilz. “The perspective of the CHE is unique in that it’s not viewing proposals in terms of what’s best for an individual institution, but rather what’s best for the state as a whole.

“All the CHE is doing and requesting is that what has been codified in state law for decades continue.”

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