by Frank Knapp, Jr., The Greenville News
Gov. Mark Sanford should be applauded for publicly raising the issue of privatizing our institutions of higher education. The decision-makers of these universities have been quietly debating the issue and some institutions have been actively privatizing their facilities through development foundations in preparation for the day when the schools would leave the public’s fold. Now the debate is open for all to discuss.
Central arguments for the privatization of our universities is that such a move would free the schools to pursue broader goals, particularly economic development through business partnerships that would be good for the state’s economy. A new report commissioned by the state’s Commission of Higher Education calls for our universities to act more entrepreneurial because of our “K-12 education achievement gap and corresponding social ills.”
Advocates for more autonomy for our universities believe that these schools can deliver South Carolina from many of our economic and social ills if only the government, and the taxpayers, would get out of their way. Letting the universities become a private sector big business and partner with other big business not only will save the state money but will lead us to a brighter future, they say.
Whether you believe the promises that the advocates of privatization espouse largely depends on your point of view. Many South Carolinians will be concerned about the mission of the privatized universities becoming economic development and not education. Some will ask whether our economy, K-12 education and social ills wouldn’t be better addressed from the bottom-up, not the top-down. And others will feel that there is simply a need for public universities.
However, small businesses should be asking themselves how they missed the government gravy train once again. Part of Gov. Sanford’s idea to encourage our universities to forego public funding and government oversight is to give them their state-owned buildings and property. Simply hand over the deeds to these new private sector institutions.
This is the provision that will make becoming private much more attractive to a university and set it up for being successful in entrepreneurial efforts in the business world. Without facing a mortgage or rent payment on their taxpayer-bought buildings and property, the new private universities will be primed not only to partner with their new big-business colleagues, but also to compete with their small-business neighbors.
This year, the public University of South Carolina has forged ahead with its plan for an on-campus hotel that will take up to $4 million of business from the local private hotels. No state law prohibits such private sector competition from government agencies and not even the governor could stop the school. Just think what a private USC will do. While true research campus partnerships with Fortune 500 companies will be inked, small businesses of every kind will face competition from an unrestrained, deep pocketed giant.
Even if all our universities would not treat their local small businesses with such disregard, should the state be contributing so greatly to their private sector success? If so, then let’s level the playing field.
Small business should receive the same privatization deal the universities may be offered. The state should pay off our mortgages and rent. The state should give our customers money to buy our goods and services; the same way tuition grants will pay for students to attend the private universities.
Of course, this idea isn’t going to happen and shouldn’t for our small businesses. But if it does for our big universities, the state should dedicate equivalent financial resources to promote the success and growth of our small businesses.