MANY OF S.C. State University’s problems are self-inflicted — brought on by an overbearing, meddling board and sometimes ineffective administrative leadership.
But don’t underestimate the damage that occurred because of the laissez-faire attitude of state lawmakers, who consistently failed to allocate adequate funding and provide oversight. Instead of treating S.C. State like any other state-owned college, the General Assembly abdicated that responsibility by allowing a handful of lawmakers to determine who got on the Orangeburg school’s board. Too many chosen to lead the institution acted out of self-interest, and their ineptitude hurt S.C. State.
The university has had chronic financial and other problems over the years, but lawmakers largely ignored them. Until now. When the bottom seems about to drop out.
S.C. State is millions of dollars behind in paying vendors, has been placed on probation by the institution that accredits it and can’t pull out of its abyss without help from the state. And it should get help, provided the school’s leaders produce a clear outline of how they will right S.C. State’s ship so that it is solvent and relevant for years to come.
Given that state leaders have now approved what would total $18 million in loans for the school, money I don’t see it repaying, we can hope that lawmakers have finally decided to pay closer attention to S.C. State.
But why did things have to get so bad before state leaders — from the governor to legislators of both parties — took much-needed interest in the fortunes of S.C. State? Some might say that S.C. State was left in limbo because it is considered the “black” university, although it belongs to all of us taxpayers. I’m sure that’s part of it.
But there’s something larger, more irresponsible at work here as well. The Palmetto State’s lawmakers and governors have had a habit of allowing problems to become dire before they choose to — or are forced to — wade in.
Think about it.
Consider the Department of Social Services. While members of a special Senate investigative panel and others are right to demand change after a notable decline in the agency’s efforts to protect our children, the fact is that this state’s leaders have ignored clear signs of trouble at DSS — from budgetary woes to policy, operational and personnel problems — for years. It’s not until now, when high-profile deaths of children involved with DSS have captured the public’s attention, that state leaders seem ready to act. It’s so bad that some lawmakers want to blow up the existing agency and replace it with a totally new creation.
Think roads. We’ve known for years that our roads and bridges were deteriorating and that our gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1987, wasn’t going to be enough to maintain them. But only after things have gotten about as bad as they can get — we’re facing a nearly $43 billion shortfall in money to meet our road needs over the next 26 years — have state leaders begun to talk seriously about doing something.
Think the Department of Juvenile Justice, where governor after governor ignored the needs of imprisoned youngsters. A federal lawsuit dragged on for more than a decade on behalf of teens who said prison officials didn't protect them from sexual or physical abuse by other youths or staff members. It wasn’t until 2003 — 12 years after the suit began — that newly appointed Director Bill Byars stepped up to begin addressing those grave issues.
Think education. Think the Department of Corrections. Think Mental Health. You get the picture.
Our state’s elected and appointed leaders have much work to do as we play catch up in so many critical areas.
And that’s what’s happening at S.C. State. We’re playing catch-up after years of neglect.
That said, S.C. State’s leadership — past and present — doesn’t get a pass. While there have been some good boards and good members at times, many chosen to help lead the school have been horrible stewards over the state’s lone historically black college. It’s up to the current board and president to turn things around.
State leaders are providing welcome help. But university officials had better not blow this opportunity. While S.C. State is being extended a life preserver today, if the university hits another particularly bad patch in the road, who knows whether help will be on the way?
Gov. Nikki Haley has said she is willing to help but is bothered that the most recent loan comes before the results of a pending audit. She has a legitimate concern. We need to know where the college stands financially and what it’s really going to take to not simply keep it afloat but return it to full strength.
Also, there are at least a few in the Legislature who think it’s time to explore folding S.C. State into the University of South Carolina’s system.
I don’t know how serious those talks are. But S.C. State leaders had better wise up. If they don’t chart a certain future for their beloved school, who in this state will? For that matter, who will save any of our state’s agencies and systems that are in such peril?
Reach Mr. Bolton
at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.