College of Charleston President George Benson says he was hamstrung in his efforts to bring his vision for the school to life by tightwad legislators and concerned neighbors.
Benson, who will step down at the end of the month after more than seven years on the job, said he's proud of his accomplishments, and there are many, but he was blocked from bringing in the money for improvements that could have rocketed the school to regional and national prominence.
"I really thought I was going to do more," Benson said of his tenure. "We played a lot of small ball," referring to a baseball strategy in which batters don't try to hit a home run every time up.
Benson said the school in 2009 developed a strategic plan that focused on academic excellence, creating a student-centered community, and taking advantage of and preserving the unique Lowcountry environment. "It is a sophisticated, bottom-up plan," said Benson, who will be replaced by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell.
The plan included hiring an additional 100 faculty members to reduce the college's reliance on adjunct professors, bringing technology to outdated classrooms, and setting aside some money from increased tuition for scholarships for lower-income students.
But to launch it, the college needed money, Benson said.
He had planned to bring in much of that money through three consecutive years of tuition increases of more than 10 percent, he said.
But the college was slapped by the state's powerful Budget and Control Board after it approved the first of those increases, a 14.75 percent jump in 2010. In response, state Sen. Hugh Leatherman sent a letter to schools that raised tuition more than 7 percent for the 2010-11 school year asking them to roll it back.
The board then approved a moratorium on new building projects for four-year schools that raised tuition more than 7 percent, and refused to roll it back.
The college rolled back its tuition increase that year because it had important building projects on the line, Benson said.
Tuition increases have been reined in even more since 2010, he said. For instance, Leatherman requested an increase of no more than 3.2 percent for the 2014-15 school year. "I've had nothing to work with," Benson said. "Both of my hands have been tied behind my back since September 2010."
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means' higher education subcommittee, said he considers Benson a friend and knows that running a college is a tough job. But he disagrees with him about the need to bring in more money by raising tuition or enrolling more high-paying, out-of-state students.
"It's simple. Legislators want to hold tuition down and they want South Carolinians to go to our schools," Limehouse said. "Yeah, we all could use more money, but we have to live within our means."
A 2010 Post and Courier investigation found that state support for higher education is weak in South Carolina. But institutions also compete with one another for applicants and prestige, and one way they do that is by improving facilities and amenities for students - often at great cost.
But Benson said the state's inadequate funding leaves its public colleges and universities only three levers to pull to bring in more money. They can increase tuition, bring in more out-of-state students who pay about twice as much tuition as South Carolina residents, and increase overall enrollment.
The College of Charleston has effectively been blocked from pulling any of those levers, Benson said, unlike other schools in the state that at least can pull the enrollment lever.
The College of Charleston's goal is to keep out-of-state enrollment around 35 percent of the undergraduate student body, school leaders have said. But in recent years, nearly half of its freshman class has been from out-of-state, one of the highest percentages among South Carolina's public colleges and universities.
Tuition at the college for the 2014-2015 school year is $10,558 for undergraduate South Carolina residents and $27,548 for out-of-state students.
And the landlocked College of Charleston on the city's peninsula has committed to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods not to increase enrollment beyond 10,000 full-time undergraduate students, Benson said. Enrollment hasn't increased since 2010, blocking another channel of income.
But that's not true of other state schools, he said. For instance, Clemson University's enrollment grew 10 percent from 19,453 to 21,303 during that same period of time. And enrollment at the University of South Carolina grew about 8 percent, from 29,599 to 31,964.
Greg Padgett, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees, said the board is committed to keeping tuition at a reasonable level. But he doesn't fault Benson for trying to bring in the money to put his plan in place. "His job is to be ambitious," Padgett said. "His job is to have vision."
Benson accomplished much, Padgett said, including: shepherding the school through the Great Recession while maintaining the quality of academic programs; leading it through several years of record fundraising; completing a plan for facilities upgrades; promoting the campus regionally and nationally; and moving the school from the Southern Conference to the more visible Colonial Athletic Association.
He also made dramatic improvements to the college's Dixie Plantation in Meggett. "He made it a living laboratory," Padgett said.
Benson said he's not sure what the future holds for him. For now, he's going "leave a sort of a vacuum" after years of working long hours. First, he'll take a year-long sabbatical, while continuing to serve on three corporate boards and the board of the Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. When he returns, he'll teach two business courses at the college, returning to where his academic career began. "The farther up the ladder you go in higher education, the farther you get from students," he said. "But I love teaching."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
Editor's note: Previous versions of this story incorrectly stated the name of the school's former athletic conference. The story also incorrectly referred to a 2010 request from state Sen. Hugh Leatherman regarding a tuition increase. These items have been corrected.
C of C president George Benson gets a hug from Paty Cowden after she received an award at a luncheon Thursday.×
Laura Moses (left) and Marti Norfleet, both C of C employees, sign a matted frame for outgoing president George Benson during a staff awards luncheon Thursday, June 12, 2014 at the McAlister Hospitality Suite at TD Arena.×
C of C president George Benson listens from his seat during a staff awards luncheon Thursday at the McAlister Hospitality Suite at TD Arena.×