Bolton: S.C. State University deserves better treatment from board, state leaders

Associate EditorApril 14, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— AS SUPPORTERS and critics alike dissect S.C. State University’s unacceptable financial predicament, they would do well to consider the college’s erratic history.

We’ve been here before. Many times. How do we make sure we stop this shameful cycle?

And at whose doorstep should the shame rest — that of overbearing board members and administrators who for years have mishandled S.C. State’s affairs or that of laissez-faire state lawmakers who consistently failed to allocate adequate funding and provide oversight?

S.C. State, which has endured fiscal problems off and on for years, is facing yet another deficit and has said it needs $13.6 million to fix things. The cause? Dwindling student enrollment and board and administrative upheaval, among other things.

With creditors breathing down the university’s neck and an accreditation agency headed to town to review concerns about board standards and financial woes, Gov. Nikki Haley and the Budget and Control Board are working on a solution.

While it’s critical to address the immediate crisis, it would be irresponsible to blindly hand money over to the school without determining the root of the problem.

A state inspector general report released last week determined that since 2007, S.C. State officials dipped into a special fund meant to aid poorer families in order to address cash-flow problems, masking the university’s financial woes for years. The school recently repaid the $6.5 million taken from the program, a move that worsened its financial crisis.

It’s important to note that the inspector general found no fraud in the diversion of money.

That outcome is similar to one following a Legislative Audit Council review of funds at the James E. Clyburn Transportation Center in 2011. The LAC found that no money was missing from the tens of millions of dollars that had been funneled to S.C. State for the development of the transportation center. However, it unearthed troubling management and accounting concerns.

In short, S.C. State has serious money-management problems that need more than a Band-Aid.

The university’s leaders must answer for how they’ve run the college and implement better management and accounting practices. They must not only come up with a prescription for the university to reach long-term stability but also devise a plan to deal with the new reality of steady enrollment decline, something that other state colleges also are experiencing. While efforts are being made to turn the tide on enrollment, what if it never reaches old levels?

Where we’ve been

In order for the university to formulate an effective plan for now and the future, it’s imperative that we look back.

The university’s problems are longstanding, cyclical and not all self-inflicted, although much damage has come from within.

When I read of S.C. State’s current problems, my mind immediately rolled back to 1998, when the university needed a $2.1 million state loan to get by. Then-President Leroy Davis declared there was no financial crisis despite the fact that was it was the third deficit in four years.

The reasons for the problems included falling student enrollment. And it didn’t help that S.C. State had gone through three presidents in seven years or that board members had little knowledge of finances. For much of that time, the school’s leadership refused to acknowledge the problems.

When President Andrew Hugine took the helm in 2003, he was a breath of fresh air. Whereas his predecessors were tight-lipped and distant, Dr. Hugine was open and frank about S.C. State’s problems, financial and otherwise.

He hired financial staffers to help develop a more professionally managed operation, met with lawmakers and regularly visited newspaper editors. He had no problem with the Budget and Control Board and lawmakers keeping close watch.

Dr. Hugine arrived during a time when S.C. State and South Carolina’s other public colleges were being hit hard by budget cuts. Those cuts were particularly harsh on S.C. State because it never had gotten sufficient funding from the Legislature in the first place. For decades, lawmakers provided inadequate funding for operations and virtually ignored the need to improve the school’s physical plant.

Unlike some colleges, S.C. State has limited access to private capital to plug holes; it doesn’t boast a gaudy endowment.

Still, under Dr. Hugine, things appeared to be headed in the right direction. He presided over a restoration in public trust in the institution, increasing its endowment and upgrading its infrastructure.

But in late 2007, the board of trustees fired Dr. Hugine via a teleconference vote and never gave the people of South Carolina any acceptable explanation.

His successor, George Cooper, didn’t last long — initially. After he received a bad performance review, the board fired him; but weeks later, a new board rehired him and took the unprecedented step of cleansing the records to make it appear that he never had been dismissed.

In 2012, with allegations of criminal wrongdoing swirling around some S.C. State officials, President Cooper fired eight top administrators, throwing the school’s leadership into a funk; he would later resign himself. The fallout continues today, as former board chairman Jonathan Pinson faces public-corruption charges involving activities at the university and at a housing development in Columbia.

Root of the problems

Nothing has been as consistent a drag on the university’s ability to progress as its board, which in the past couple of years has been almost completely replaced in hopes that new trustees, along with new President Thomas Elzey, can change things for the better.

The board’s ineptitude is legendary. For sure, there have been and still are some committed, well-meaning people on the board, but so many over the years have treated the university like their own private club, engaging in senseless and unproductive turf wars.

But let’s not forget the role this state’s many governors and lawmakers have played in creating the environment at S.C. State: They provided too little funding, too little oversight and too little support for decades on end. The General Assembly’s failure to treat S.C. State as a public college that belongs to S.C. taxpayers enabled the dysfunction that we see today.

While it’s the Legislature’s job to watch over all the state’s colleges, it has abdicated that responsibility by allowing a handful of lawmakers to determine who got on the S.C. State board. And in turn, too many chosen to lead the institution acted out of self-interest.

S.C. State’s unique status in our state is undeniable: Long before integration, it prepared black students to become productive citizens and contributors to our state. But just because it serves a predominantly black student population doesn’t mean it’s the “black” college; lawmakers have the duty to fund, support and oversee it just as they do other state colleges.

The turnaround needed at S.C. State begins in both Orangeburg and Columbia. Leaders at the university as well as those at the State House must acknowledge past failings, devise an effective plan for progress and establish once and for all S.C. State’s place among South Carolina’s institutions of higher education.

S.C. State University belongs to all of us, and we ought to treat it as such.

Reach Mr. Bolton at wbolton@thestate.com.

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