Gene Warr starts his tenure as chairman of the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees with the school at record-high enrollment and charging record tuition as it tries to offset dwindling state money and repay just more than $500 million in debt from a building boom.
Warr’s four-year tenure should see completion of a $1 billion fundraising campaign, and a revamped campus and athletics program that could attract more top-tier students and faculty.
“Overall, he’s inherited a ship on good course,” said Barnwell attorney Miles Loadholt, who ended his term Friday as trustee chairman after the four-year limit.
After his unanimous election Friday, Warr jokingly told USC’s others trustees to kick him under the table if he makes a misstep.
Then, he got serious.
“If you need to criticize me, I can take it,” he said. “I just need you to tell me the truth. Let’s do the best we can together.”
Warr, a 52-year-old Pee Dee attorney, said he wants to help USC’s students by ensuring college is affordable.
He said more than 80 percent of USC’s funding came from state government when he started school en route to a business degree in 1977. Now, it is less than 10 percent.
“I worry about that a lot and what that means for what it costs to go to school,” the father of two said. “How do we keep college affordable – maybe I shouldn’t say keep – maybe it’s how we get it back there?”
USC’s annual tuition and mandatory fees have ballooned by 81.5 percent in the past decade to nearly $10,500 this fall. Room, board and books add still more costs.
The school’s total enrollment also has risen, increasing by nearly 3,500 students since 2007 – passing 30,000 for the first time last year.
“At this point, we’re pushing it,” Warr said of enrollment. “We have classes at all sorts of times. We’re trying to be as efficient as we can be with the buildings we have and the classroom space we have. I don’t think we can keep going in that direction.”
In June, USC approved its smallest annual tuition hike since 1999, but, Warr said, trustees also must persuade lawmakers to bolster funding for the state’s flagship college.
“We’re going to continue to beg,” Warr said. “We’re going to talk about how important it is to have a state where bright and capable young people can go get a college degree and not come out of school with a tremendous amount of debt. … You’re already seeing people now starting to question, ‘Is it really worth it and what it will cost me?’ ”
The cost of upgrading USC campuses has come with a price.
The USC system’s debt has grown 170 percent in the past decade to $513 million from $189 million, according to data shared with trustees on Friday.
About a third of the $325 million in new debt was due to athletics, which has added a baseball stadium, academic center, administration building, and bought and transformed the State Farmers Market into a football game day parking lot. The athletics program’s income now repays that debt.
Additional debt was incurred building residence halls on USC’s regional campuses.
Budget director Leslie Brunelli told USC’s trustees the school can handle its current debt load, though trustees asked her for data to show how well revenue is repaying its bonds. She also told the trustees the school is looking at another $166 million in debt in the next five years to pay for a new law school and dorm renovations.
Warr, who grew up on a tobacco and cotton farm in the Darlington County town of Lamar where he said he worked for $3 a day, said he thinks every dollar is meaningful.
“That’s one of the things that we really watch and talk about, ‘How about that debt?’ and ‘Where are we paying that debt back?’ ” he said. “That number has grown, but when you look at how much we have grown, how many more people we’re trying to provide an education to, it’s understandable.”
Warr said he traces his USC lineage to his grandfather, who graduated from the university with degrees in journalism and chemistry. Rather than take a newspaper job in Charleston, his grandfather chose to work on the family farm near a spot called Deep Hole Swamp.
Loadholt leaves the chairmanship after USC’s building explosion and its recent athletics success, which he cited as among his term’s most significant accomplishments. Loadholt also said he was proud to work with USC president Harris Pastides, whom he helped select as the university’s new head while leading a search committee in 2008.
“The sun rises, shines and sets on this man here,” said Loadholt, patting Pastides on the shoulder.