As the most-recent former chairman of the Winthrop University Board of Trustees, I was surprised to read the Aug. 24 Herald editorial referencing “remaining skepticism that the university is on sound financial footing.”
Then, a day later, I learned that an internal source of that skepticism apparently was Rock Hill Trustee Glenn McCall, who is now filling the Winthrop board seat I vacated in 2013.
Mr. McCall reportedly told The Herald he had felt “like a kid yelling ‘fire’ ” when trying to draw attention to the issue of Winthrop’s use of reserve funds over the years.
While recollections from my years do not at all match Mr. McCall’s on that point, here’s what I do recall from detailed board discussions about use of Winthrop resources, including some reserves, to help enable enrollment growth:
▪ Winthrop’s original facilities did not have capacity to serve the incremental enrollment growth that was becoming necessary, given reductions in state operating funds for institutions like Winthrop. So for a while, Winthrop enrollment was kept right-sized for its older facilities until new ones were ready.
▪ Some of Winthrop’s “reserves” – savings banked for just such needs – would be used to connect and serve new buildings that the Board approved as part of Winthrop’s long-term facilities master plan. But first, it was necessary to relocate and rehab decades-old utility lines to serve the planned buildings – what Winthrop called its “Big Dig.” Once that work was done, in rapid succession, the West Center was built, then Owens Hall, and finally the DiGiorgio Center, including a sophisticated outdoor stormwater system to prevent flooding of what had become the new nerve center of campus. With no state capital funding available, Winthrop reserves paid for all that supporting infrastructure. As York County trustees in particular should recall, the investments to facilitate Winthrop growth were (and are) deemed key to the local economic development program now known as Knowledge Park.
▪ Scholars Walk, the pedestrian artery that transverses campus, now sits atop that utility work. It literally “connects the dots,” making a whole of the individual new projects that prepared Winthrop to grow. It is the contemporary focal point of campus when prospective students and families visit. Without these investments being made when they were, Winthrop wouldn’t stand a chance at growing enrollment today. These projects also created an infusion of construction dollars and jobs in York County during the worst of the recent recession.
▪ As state funding dropped by an unprecedented 50 percent during that recession, federal stimulus funding filled some of the gap, but only temporarily. Knowing that, trustees commissioned “Readiness Winthrop,” a plan to emphasize enrollment growth, consolidate/create new academic programs, and revise annual spending to meet new fiscal realities.
▪ With facilities completed and Winthrop ready to grow, then-President Tony DiGiorgio announced that his retirement from the presidency would occur in mid-2013, and I eventually made my retirement as a trustee concurrent with his.
True, Winthrop enrollment did not grow as immediately as hoped once the building boom was done. That was in large part because major S.C. institutions increased their enrollment ceilings dramatically to replace lost state dollars and expiring federal stimulus funds, as well. For instance, the S.C. Commission on Higher Education reports that USC-Columbia in Fall 2008 enrolled 27,488 students. This year, the expectation is 33,000.
The good news is that now Winthrop seems on its way to building the larger enrollment for which it prepared with a great sense of purpose over the past decade.
And yes, happily, it is possible for Winthrop now to begin returning funds to reserves – also incrementally – while I hope concurrently investing in the quality that makes Winthrop exceptional.
That return to saving is not because anyone ever yelled the equivalent of “fire” to trustees, but because of Winthrop’s good planning over the long term. That is no cause for fiscal “skepticism,” but rather, for admiration and hope that future leaders of Winthrop, whoever they might be, will do even half as well should they encounter similar national recession challenges.
Dalton B. Floyd Jr., a Surfside Beach attorney, is a former chairman of both the Winthrop University Board of Trustees and the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.