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How to fix SC State: Embattled school must do five things, experts say

S.C. State University’s history spans nearly six generations. Its fate will be decided over the next three months.

An upheaval is coming after years of financial mismanagement. S.C. State’s board is pushing out its president and the Legislature is ready to oust all its trustees. Meanwhile, enrollment continues to tumble and the school could lose its accreditation this summer.

Despite that dismal picture, higher education experts and key alumni said they see paths to the future for S.C. State.

They say South Carolina’s only state-funded historically black public college needs:

•  Well-connected leaders capable of stabilizing the Orangeburg school

•  More financial support from alumni and the state, especially to escape its $17 million deficit

•  To find its financial bottom

•  To identify academic niches that create a demand among students

•  To be transparent about what it is doing

Michael Sorrell understands what S.C. State is facing.

Sorrell led Paul Quinn College, a small, private, historically black school in Dallas, out of a financial hole.

“You have something more than a $17 million deficit. You have a crisis of confidence,” he said. “It’s easy to clear up a deficit but harder to clean up a deficit of public faith.”

Still, Sorrell said, supporters of the Orangeburg school should not give up hope. “I don’t see impossible. But I see difficult.”

Seek well-connected leaders

A different type of leader is needed to help a struggling college, said David Wilson, president at Morgan State University, a public historically black college in Baltimore.

“The board needs to hire an innovative leader who is change oriented,” he said. “They don’t need a person who is committed to moving the old furniture around into new spaces. They need someone to create a vision for the institution.”

The university also needs a leader with business acumen and an entrepreneurial spirit, said Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

“Sometimes it’s good to bring in a ‘fixer’ – a stopgap,” she said. “I do know that (S.C. State) cannot have a recycled president. They need someone young, energetic.”

That new president will have to make tough calls.

“In a crisis, it’s not a democracy,” Paul Quinn College’s Sorrell said. “They will need a small cadre of individuals who are empowered to address the deficit. That means there will be some uncomfortable moments.”

Changes also are needed in the boardroom.

New trustees must carry connections to power and wealth, and be willing to give money to the school and get others to follow, Penn’s Gasman said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of S.C. State’s most prominent graduates, noted that one of S.C. State’s main athletic rivals, North Carolina A&T University, has a board led by a Harvard University-educated New York investment banker. That board also includes a Duke University-educated health care consultant, a Merck pharmaceuticals executive and a retired Xerox executive.

S.C. State’s current board lacks that depth in business experience and academic success, said Clyburn, a Democrat from Columbia. But attracting out-of-state trustees would require changing the state Constitution, which requires that in-state trustees serve on S.C. public college boards.

“Put some people down there who are not political hacks,” Clyburn said. “Put some people down there who understand what this is all about.”

Clyburn said the new board should include experienced college leaders, such as former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders. But the congressman also wants the new board to have experienced, well-connected African-American business professionals.

Clyburn suggested: Milton Irvin, a retired investment banker who lives near Hilton Head Island; Ronald Thompson, a Chrysler Group board member who lives on Daniel Island; and Edward Polite, a retired corporate chief executive and former chairman of the S.C. State University Educational Foundation, who lives on Seabrook Island.

“Get these types who have made a lot of money and don’t want to build a resume,” Clyburn said.

Provide a money boost

State lawmakers need to help S.C. State’s bank accounts, experts and alumni said.

With the university owing $11 million to vendors and $6 million for a state loan, any new school leadership will start in a financial hole.

“I would like to see those at that state give the school a chance to start fresh and trust their new (leadership) and give them enough time to work on a plan,” said retired Army Major Gen. Abraham Turner, one of the 19 generals and admirals to graduate from S.C. State. “It’s time to move away from the past.”

The General Assembly should supply $17 million in exchange for a financial plan that will secure the school’s future, said Turner, formerly head of the state’s employment agency. “You’re not going to pay for the car without seeing the car.”

The S.C. House approved giving S.C. State $4 million to pay vendors last week, and the school could access $10.5 million left in a special account if it can stay atop its bills.

Penn’s Gasman said S.C. State’s funding problems are more systemic.

S.C. State gets a larger portion of ongoing state funding per student than do other public universities. But the school has not received as much money for buildings, maintenance and academic projects, its supporters have said.

In part, Gasman acknowledges, that is because of leadership problems at S.C. State. But longstanding racial divides also have played a role.

“It’s hard to stop a flood with a Band-Aid,” Gasman said. “There’s huge (funding) disparities between S.C. State and (University of South Carolina). There’s still a huge amount of segregation. ... If (lawmakers) care about African-American students, they have to invest in African-American students. If that were a white institution, it would be funded properly.”

Find the financial bottom

For all the audits and questions, S.C. State does not yet have the answers it needs to move forward, said Sorrell, the Paul Quinn College president.

“To be honest, you need to know where the bottom truly is,” Sorrell said, adding that could take years. “That is incredibly difficult to do for a lot of reasons. The bottom is often a painful discovery. Stakeholders can see finding a bottom as a referendum on them, and you have to remove that. You need to know what you’re dealing with.”

For Sorrell, that led to making unpopular cuts, including eliminating Paul Quinn’s football team. Instead of keeping that program, Sorrell elected to renovate his school’s gym. That facility benefited three sports – men’s and women’s basketball, and volleyball – instead of one.

“You’re going to anger people who are part of the community.” Sorrell said. “But it’s about short-term pain to achieve a long-term goal.”

Penn’s Gasman suggested S.C. State beef up its grant-writing and fundraising arms to win more money for the school – even if that requires cutting some other administrative staff. She also suggested an agreement with Orangeburg–Calhoun Technical College for a bridge program to steer more qualified students to S.C. State.

But the biggest financial obstacle facing S.C. State could be losing its accreditation. Without it, students cannot receive federal financial aid. And more than 3 in 4 S.C. State students rely on that aid.

Gasman expects the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to pull S.C. State’s accreditation in June, citing its financial problems.

She also expects S.C. State to survive the hit by finding new missions.

“All too often struggling (historically black colleges and universities) continue along the same course and that hurts them in these cases,” she said. “It’s better to begin a new course of action.”

Look for academic niches

The future of S.C. State is in specializing in selected academic areas, the experts suggested.

“You don’t have to be everything to everyone,” Gasman said.

S.C. State should look at building up its teachers program as well as math and science majors, she said.

“Stick to that,” Gasman said. “Get them highly accredited and go after students for the those programs.”

Wilson, the Morgan State president, suggested the school offer distinctive majors, such as cybersecurity, or in agriculture, since S.C. State is a land-grant school.

“It would be the only place in South Carolina for these majors,” said Wilson, whose school has worked to develop national niches for its engineering programs. “It will diversify the (student) population and improve the programs.”

Win support through transparency

S.C. State also must rebuild its relationships with alumni and find big-time donors so the school can build its endowment, which now stands at $5 million.

Clyburn cites the example of a college classmate – a millionaire – who refuses to assist his alma mater.

“He said, ‘I don’t like any of the people they put in place down there to spend people’s money,’ ” the congressman recalled. “ ‘Why I am I going to give money to something I don’t believe in? If they put somebody down there that I believe in and feel comfortable with, I will raise money and give money.’ ”

The keys to winning money are transparency and communication, said Turner, the retired general.

S.C. State leaders need to attend civic group, chamber and church meetings statewide to promote what the school is doing to solve its crisis, Turner said. They also must go to cities outside South Carolina where large concentrations of alumni live and pitch the changes they are making.

“You have to show them and convince them you have a viable plan,” Turner said. “The school has to be good at explaining where it is going. When asking for money, you must have a plan and show who has control of it.”

Any plan that new school leaders develop must be available on the school’s website, he said. And S.C. State also ought to publish its benchmarks and post progress reports monthly or quarterly.

“This information needs to be shared by everyone,” Turner said. “The problem is that the school has not been transparent. We have to get it right this time.”