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S.C. State escapes death sentence, retains accreditation

FILE PHOTO.
FILE PHOTO.

S.C. State’s accreditation was taken off probation Thursday, a move that school officials said is critical to the school’s recovery.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges said the state’s only historically black public college will retain its accreditation, which had been on probation for two years.

“South Carolina State has the finances and the resources to continue its mission,” said Franklin Evans, named S.C. State’s interim president last year after the school’s trustees fired former president Thomas Elzey. “It’s going to send a positive message … that S.C. State is back.”

Losing accreditation would have been a death sentence for the Orangeburg school. Students cannot get federal financial aid to attend an unaccredited college, and 88 percent of S.C. State students receive financial aid.

Years of budget deficits, financial mismanagement, a corruption scandal and declining enrollment put the 120-year-old school’s future in jeopardy.

S.C. State’s accreditation was placed on probation two years ago. Last year, S.C. lawmakers briefly proposed shuttering the school for two years before agreeing to sack and replace its board of trustees. The new board has been led by Charleston developer Charlie Way, a former state Commerce Department secretary.

Evans said S.C. State has “done some amazing things to bring this university back.”

The moves include cutting faculty and staff, which remained stagnant as enrollment and funding declined, and renegotiating contracts with vendors, he said.

“We had been paying out a whole lot of money based on an enrollment (level) of students from years ago that wasn’t realistic,” Evans said.

The school’s undergraduate enrollment now is below 2,800, down from almost 5,000 in 2007.

The decision by lawmakers last month to forgive $12 million in state loans to the school also was huge. Evans said the accrediting commission could have held that debt against S.C. State this week in hearings that centered mostly on the school’s financial standing.

“The state has shown its support and stepped up in a big way,” Evans said.

In a statement, S.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, praised the school’s new leadership. “This is a big accomplishment for South Carolina State University,” the Senate leader said. “It’s important that this university, which holds great historical value in our state, stay open, keep its accreditation and thrive in the coming years.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she was “very pleased and relieved” at the news. S.C. State’s loss would have been “indescribable, not just economically but also culturally,” for Orangeburg County and the state, she said.

But the school needs long-term leadership and to install internal checks and balances to avoid making the same mistakes again, she said. “There is still much work to do,” Cobb-Hunter said. “Before we have a parade and celebrate, we need to be clear about that.”

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, who headed the S.C. House panel that recommended temporarily closing S.C. State, agreed. “It’s important now ... that we don’t just rest on our laurels,” Merrill said. “We have to increase the number of students. We have to increase the endowment. And, then, we have to make sure the administration is fiscally responsible.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

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