Saving S.C. State will be challenging

While the actions proposed by state lawmakers to save South Carolina State University are drastic, they at least offer evidence that the Legislature is determined to prevent the state’s only public historically black university from closing its doors.

S.C. State has been in financial decline for years. But the patience of lawmakers appeared to run out after a large infusion of state money in December failed to turn things around.

A legislative panel chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman agreed in December to grant S.C. State $12 million over three years. The school received the first $1.5 million payment soon after, but the amount it owes in unpaid bills continued to grow by $1 million and now totals $11 million.

Leatherman said he has lost faith in S.C. State’s trustees, and it now appears likely that the entire board will be fired. The school’s president, Thomas Elzey, has been suspended with pay, and he also could be fired, although two years remain on his contract and he could be owed about $400,000 if fired without just cause.

A proposal to replace S.C. State’s board with a temporary one appointed by Leatherman and other lawmakers is co-sponsored by the Senate’s Democratic leader as well as two senators who graduated from the school. The Legislative Black Caucus also has called for Elzey to step down.

And, significantly, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., now has called for the ouster of the board. Clyburn who, along with his wife, graduated from S.C. State in 1961, has been one of the school’s biggest boosters,

Despite the seriousness of this plan, it is a step back from a proposal by the S.C. House Ways and Means Committee to close the school for two years while it undergoes a massive overhaul. Fortunately, the plan had little support in the full House, and senators promised to kill it if it passed.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see South Carolina State closed, and I hope that’s never a serious consideration,” said Gov. Nikki Haley last month, no doubt echoing the sentiments of most lawmakers, not to mention students, alumni and other supporters of the university. But, Haley added, “we want to help you but you’re not helping yourself.”

No single factor is the source of S.C. State’s woes. It has suffered years of declining enrollment, along with a drop in state funding and federal changes that made many students ineligible for grants.

But critics say school leaders did little to stop the bleeding. Elzey, who took over in the spring of 2013, said the school had continued to spend as if nothing had changed.

Part of the problem could be a declining attraction of traditionally black colleges and universities, as other institutions continue to draw African American students. However, a number of traditionally black schools – Spelman College, Morehouse College, Howard University, Tuskegee University, Florida A&M University – continue to thrive around the nation.

S.C. State has a rich tradition that many of its defenders would like to preserve and build upon. But the school, even under better circumstances, would have to deal with many of the same challenges facing other state-supported colleges in South Carolina: flat enrollment, the recession, lack of state funding, delayed maintenance, low faculty morale.

But those challenges are compounded for S.C. State, which is $11 million in the hole with no obvious way out.

If state lawmakers are committed – as we hope they are – to preserving S.C. State, new leadership and stable funding could help. But the school also will have to find a way to reverse declining enrollment, which no doubt stems in part from the uncertainty of the school’s future.

Rescuing S.C. State won’t be easy. But, as Haley stated, no one wants to see it close.