Originally created 01/12/04

Legislators push four-year college program for USC-Sumter



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The University of South Carolina's president is no fan of the idea of making its Sumter campus a four-year college, but legislators are poised to do just that.

The Sumter two-year college doesn't offer a bachelor's degree program and now serves about 1,200 mostly nontraditional students who have been out of high school for years. The average student is 28 and attends only part-time.

"They can get about three-quarters of what they need in Sumter, but then they've got to pack up and head to Columbia," to finish their four-year degree, state Sen. John Land, D-Manning said. "That doesn't seem too fair, and it's not possible for a lot of students."

Local governments have pledged a combined $250,000 a year to help the school make the transition to four-year status. "To be able to say we've got an institution that offers four-year degrees would be a big feather in our cap," said Grier Blackwelder, president of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce.

USC President Andrew Sorensen takes a dim view of the notion. In a pointed November letter, Sorensen told USC-Sumter dean Les Carpenter the school lacks the academic gravitas to be a four-year school.

"I am a long way from being convinced that there is a compelling case for such a change at USC Sumter," Sorensen wrote.

Sorensen, who strongly advocates scholarly research, called the USC-Sumter faculty's record of published works "grossly inadequate." Sorensen noted he personally published about the same amount of scholarly work as USC Sumter's entire faculty, which has about 40 full-time professors.

Education officials haven't tried to estimate the cost of turning Sumter into a four-year program and, though many don't like the notion, they're careful in what they say about it. Legislators have linked the Sumter program expansion with a mammoth higher education bill that promises regulatory relief and millions of dollars in construction money for the state's colleges.

When local lawmakers quietly attached the Sumter proposal to the larger higher education bill, just 15 of 46 state senators opposed the Sumter amendment. Half that opposition came from members of Sen. Warren Giese's Education Committee.

"By every stretch of the imagination, it would be nothing more than a school of convenience," Giese, R-Columbia, said. "It may be a great thing for Sumter, but it's bad for the state of South Carolina."

Conrad Festa, executive director of the state Commission on Higher Education, opposes the Sumter plan and is surpassed the commission's 14 members haven't gotten lobbied against it. He thinks "there's a reluctance to get involved in what they see as the legislators' business."

If legislators agree, USC-Sumter will be granted authority to offer new degree programs without commission approval. That one-of-a-kind arrangement could increase duplication and weaken efforts to coordinate education goals, Festa said.