COLUMBIA — Some lawmakers demanded state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom apologize Wednesday for saying many students attend S.C. State University because they could not afford to go elsewhere or get into other schools.
“It serves a student body that doesn’t have the ability to bail the university out,” the Lexington Republican said Wednesday during a state budget board discussion about giving a loan to the school, which has a $13.6 million cash shortfall. “These aren’t kids coming from wealthy parents (or) from wealthy niches in the community. These are kids going there because they couldn’t get into these other schools.”
Some of the more than 30 S.C. State supporters, attending the Budget and Control Board meeting in Columbia, started groaning at Eckstrom’s remarks. Others shouted “no.”
“They can’t afford it,” Eckstrom said, as school supporters continued to grumble.
The board approved the loan. Eckstrom, 65, abstained because he said he did not like the loan but did not want to oppose the university.
“There were no racial overtones at all,” Eckstrom said of his comment after the meeting.
During the meeting, Eckstrom said he was committed to S.C. State but downplayed its importance as the state’s only historically black public school.
“The sooner that this state gets away from talking about the concept of talking about historically black universities is a step forward for this state. We no longer talk about historically white universities,” Eckstrom said. “We need to move beyond that. ... We need to move to deal with the issue of funding the needs of S.C. State because it’s an institution of higher learning.”
Later Wednesday, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, and the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus called on Eckstrom, who is seeking re-election against a Democratic challenger this year, to apologize.
“He should do more research on why HBCUs exist,” the caucus said in a statement. “The students at SCSU have options like other students and many have purposefully chosen to attend (a) HBCU. S.C. State University has a rich heritage and tradition of (attracting) students from all socio-economic levels and providing quality higher education.”
Eckstrom did not offer an apology, saying his comments were intended to point out the financial need of students who attend S.C. State, not that the Orangeburg school was their college of last resort. “To read anything else into this is politics.”
S.C. State president Thomas Elzey said Eckstrom was misunderstood.
“He was saying we have a large number of students who attend our university who are (financial) need students,” Elzey said after the budget board meeting. “We welcome those students to our school.”
S.C. State had the second-largest percentage of students receiving needs-based grants among S.C. four-year public colleges in 2012-13, according to an analysis of state data. Nearly 30 percent of in-state S.C. State students received needs-based aid last year – nearly double the statewide average.