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Under Pressure, South Carolina Colleges Put Expense Reports Online

Many public colleges release chart-filled accountability reports that purport to show how they spend taxpayer money. But nine South Carolina colleges have gone one step further, publishing itemized expense reports online for anyone to see.

The colleges, which include Clemson University, released the previously private information after pressure from the state comptroller and from state lawmakers, who approved bills last month that would require them to publish the data.

Such disclosures could become more common as politicians push public colleges to detail their spending and publish financial information online that they would have previously only provided in response to a public-records request.

The reports include details on sensitive areas like athletic recruitment, subscriptions, and consulting contracts. Clemson’s library, for instance, spent $185,000 in January with Thomas Scientific and $43,000 on ProQuest. The Citadel’s president’s office spent $18,000 on two leadership consultants, according to its January report.

The spending reports can, however, be difficult to use. Many of the expenditures are difficult to understand out of context, and most of the colleges supply their reports as large PDF files that make it challenging to group information together. Clemson built an online database that provides some additional context and allows users to search and sort through spending data.

A spokesman for the state comptroller’s office, R.J. Shealy, said the colleges have resisted providing the information, contending that it would cost them upwards of $1-million and that the information would be taken out of context. But those concerns are unfounded, he said. Public agencies, he said, “really think they’re going to be swamped with calls: Why’d you buy this? What’d you spend on that?” But “it just doesn’t happen.”

Nearly identical bills that would require spending disclosures by all 33 of South Carolina’s public colleges were approved unanimously by each house of the legislature last month, but they have not been reconciled.

A Clemson spokeswoman, Cathy Sams, acknowledged that there had been concerns about releasing what is typically private information. “But it might be something that other universities in other states may do as well,” she said. “We may be ahead of the curve on this.”

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