Board of regents bill

A bill to create a single board of regents to oversee South Carolina's state colleges and universities will be a hard sell. But at a time when most state institutions are cutting budgets and trying to resist tuition increases, the option might be more attractive.

State Rep. G.M. Smith, R-Sumter, filed legislation this month to establish a board of regents. This is the second time he has introduced such a bill.

His goal is to streamline programs, improve efficiency and cut down on duplication of services at the state's public colleges and universities. While Smith concedes that his bill faces many hurdles, he has the backing of Gov. Mark Sanford, who long has championed the idea of a board of regents.

The state supports 16 two-year technical colleges and 10 four-year colleges, including the University of South Carolina system with eight campuses across the state. Those schools are supervised by their own boards of trustees.

Under Smith's bill, a single board of regents would oversee all two- and four-year colleges and universities in the state. The board would have 15 members, with the General Assembly electing two members from each of the state's six congressional districts. The governor would appoint the remaining three members.

The single board would have broad authority over most aspects of the schools' operations. It would set enrollment levels, tuition and fees.

More significantly, it would have the authority to weed out programs it deemed unnecessary, too costly or of interest to too few students. That would include not only future programs, but also existing ones.

That, inevitably, would set off a turf war among the various colleges and universities: If duplicate programs were targeted, which institution would be forced to cut its existing program?

The board might decide to close down entire schools in an effort to consolidate. The USC system, with its eight campuses, could be especially vulnerable.

Of course, some of the concerns of colleges and universities regarding a board of regents are warranted. Many state-supported schools -- including Winthrop University and York Technical College in York County -- play a vital role in their communities and work hand-in-hand with local businesses to train employees. That close relationship might diminish when authority is removed from local boards.

More campuses also provide more access to higher education for residents across the state.

Nonetheless, better collaboration and cooperation among the state's schools is necessary. As the economy continues to weaken, more budget cuts loom, and schools again consider tuition hikes, getting rid of unnecessary programs is an increasingly attractive option.

South Carolina should give serious consideration to joining many other states whose colleges and universities are governed by a centralized board of regents.