COLUMBIA — Clemson University endured a political roller coaster in the state capital Wednesday.
Hours after university officials received a state panel’s approval for two high-dollar projects, they were harshly criticized by three Republican senators who have qualms about legislation that would ease state oversight of Clemson’s privately funded endeavors.
Senators employed a rarely used parliamentary rule to debate the bill that would allow Clemson to create an enterprise division to oversee athletics, research and economic development projects financed with state dollars. These projects then would be subject to less red tape, which university officials say would hasten their completion.
Sen. Shane Martin of Spartanburg and Sen. Kevin Bryant of Anderson had previously filed objections intended to block a vote on the measure. They said they suspect Clemson officials were behind Wednesday’s parliamentary maneuvering, a claim that a university spokeswoman flatly denied.
“Today, I was blindsided,” said Martin, a Clemson alumnus who met with university President Jim Barker last week to discuss his concerns about the enterprise division bill.
Martin said he was continuing to negotiate with Barker in good faith on Wednesday and was surprised when the bill came up for a floor debate before he and Barker reached a final agreement.
To prevent a vote on the measure from taking place, Martin immediately filed dozens of amendments, including one that called for a consultant to prepare a plan outlining how Clemson University could become a private institution instead of a public university.
Sen. Lee Bright of Roebuck spoke in favor of the privatization amendment, which was eventually defeated on a voice vote.
Bright complained that Clemson officials use their lobbying clout in Columbia to avoid accountability and seek additional state money.
During Wednesday’s debate, Bryant accused Barker of trying to stop a legislative audit of Clemson’s public service activities. The 2011 audit urged Clemson officials to improve its evaluations of executives and look for ways to better coordinate programs with other agencies.
University spokeswoman Cathy Sams said Barker sought to understand the concerns that led to the audit but never asked that it not be conducted.
Sams insisted Clemson officials have no desire to become a private university, saying, “Ultimately we believe it would be bad for Clemson and bad for the citizens of the state of South Carolina.”
She also said Clemson is “fully committed to oversight and full transparency.”
Under terms of the enterprise division bill, she said, Clemson would be “subject to all reporting, audit and transparency provisions currently in place.”
Senators are expected to take a final vote on the enterprise division bill Thursday.
Earlier Wednesday, the South Carolina Budget and Control Board unanimously approved the university’s plans to build a genetics and research education facility in Greenwood, as well as a proposed graduate education center and lab upgrade in Charleston.
The 17,000-square-foot building in Greenwood would be part of a $21.6 million collaboration between Clemson and Greenwood Genetics Center to create what is billed as a world-class research hub. The $23.5 million project in Charleston calls for building a 51,000-square-foot graduate education center and upgrading the Warren Lasch Conservation Lab, which is where researchers are studying the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.