There were two interesting developments this week in our annual Legislative Session. They were reported on two different days, and certainly were not meant to be read together. Between the two, they demonstrate where we as a state seem to value our Public Colleges and Universities: their value as institutions educating tomorrow’s leaders and scholars, and their value in providing entertainment and, to some extent, leadership lessons on the gridiron.
The first of these appears to be the more serious. Our only state supported HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is South Carolina State University. There has been an ongoing debate since public schools were racially integrated fifty years ago, as to the continued utility of HBCU’s throughout the nation. The debate has pretty much settled down now; it has concluded that HBCU’s continue to be well worth their cost in providing opportunity to minority young adults, many of whom would otherwise not be able to attend higher education. South Carolina State, whether through state government neglect or local mismanagement, has fallen into dire economic straits. It has a reported $17 million deficit owed to various contractors. Its President and senior South Carolina State leadership have asked for $50 million in new state funding over the next five years to improve academics and presumably to attract good students to the Orangeburg campus. It already has a $6 million loan from the state government, coming due this year. This week, a South Carolina House budget committee essentially said “Enough is enough,” and voted to recommend to the legislature as a whole, to close South Carolina State for at least two years, assume their debts, fire all their senior administrators, and hire a new group to restart the University – initially without college accreditation, and therefore with a high risk of failure even then.
Those are serious dollar figures for any University, and the budget committee’s hesitation to send good money after bad is certainly understandable. But let’s look at the news about Clemson this same week.
The Clemson Board of Trustees approved a bond resolution to renovate Littlejohn Coliseum, slated to cost $63.5 million. In a separate action, they gave “concept approval” for a new football operations complex near the existing indoor practice facility, with a budget of $62 million. It was pointed out that this total of $125.5 million is not really “government funding” even though, like South Carolina State, Clemson is a public university; these costs would be paid by the athletic department and by alumni contributions. But money is fungible; it can be moved about from one place to another, and six members of the Clemson Board of Trustees are appointed by the South Carolina Legislature.
For those without a good memory for numbers, let me repeat: we are considering closing South Carolina State University because they owe the state government $6 million, are a total of $23 million in arrears, and are asking for $50 million over five years to rebuild their academic institution; while Clemson is funding $125.5 million right now, just to improve their football program. Our legislature, or at least its Budget Committee, is outraged by the size of one of those. The other one, they seem to be saying, fits within normal funding limits and meets the priority needs of our public universities in these austere times.
Football versus Academics. Opportunity for a number of varsity players and entertainment for many students and alumni, versus educational opportunity for a large number of disadvantaged young South Carolinians. One is the dog, the other is the tail. Which one wags which, in our state? Are you, dear readers, happy with the answer? How about our Edgefield County legislative delegation, are they happy with the answer?