Editorial: SC should establish Board of Regents the proper way

WHILE STATE Rep. Jim Merrill was right when he said South Carolina needs a strong Board of Regents to oversee this state’s colleges and universities, his attempt to force such a change through the budgetary process was dead wrong.

Mr. Merrill proposed defunding the Commission on Higher Education and funneling that money elsewhere; he wants the state to establish a Board of Regents as a replacement. But as some lawmakers rightly noted, the proper way to do that is through stand-alone legislation, not the budget.

Frustrated by the sad saga unfolding at financially challenged S.C. State University and the increasing cost of college tuition, Mr. Merrill lashed out at the Commission on Higher Education, saying that it has acted as an advocate for colleges and universities instead of regulating them. He criticized the commission for not alerting the state to the problems at S.C. State and for not eliminating expensive duplication of programs at state colleges to rein in costs.

Frankly, the Commission on Higher Education isn’t nearly as powerful an agency as some might believe and certainly not as empowered as it should be. It’s not clear just how much authority the commission has in overseeing matters such as colleges’ finances. Even if it does have such responsibility, it’s abundantly clear that it doesn’t have the teeth to do the job effectively.

The agency has struggled to meet its basic job of vetting colleges’ programs and standards because lawmakers have routinely overruled and, in some instances, disempowered it. College leaders know that a simple complaint to lawmakers can lead to a rebuke of the agency and a reprieve for their school. It’s lawmakers who have failed to establish an effective system through which to manage our state’s colleges, which long have acted as silos, pursuing uncoordinated, often repetitive plans.

We long have called for a Board of Regents to provide effective oversight, planning and coordination of this state’s institutions of higher education. Such a board could be charged with developing and maintaining a strategic plan to align the missions of all colleges with state goals. Not only could it address issues of duplication, but it could determine whether this state really needs 33 colleges scattered over more than 80 campuses. We believe some need to be closed or combined.

Ideally, a Board of Regents would have the resources, authority and responsibility to address problems of any sort. It would be engaged all along and could intervene long before a college declines to the level S.C. State has.

While Mr. Merrill’s vehicle for pursuing a Board of Regents is inappropriate, his timing and the message it sends are just right. The S.C. State debacle, rising tuition and other problems illustrate the need for a change in the way colleges are governed. Lawmakers must not miss the opportunity. Mr. Merrill and others should seize the moment and make a sincere effort to establish a Board of Regents through the proper process.

South Carolina would be much better for it.