In recent weeks, I have watched my beloved alma mater, South Carolina State University (SCSU) subjected to a campaign of deceit and sensationalism perpetrated by a few malcontents. They don't have the benefit of history or the best interest of the university at heart.
In 1980-81, I served on Governor Richard Riley's Blue Ribbon Committee that was tasked with developing a response to a lawsuit charging South Carolina and other Southern states with racial discrimination in their higher education institutions. My experience on that committee -- which was chaired by W.W. "Hootie" Johnson, for whom I developed a great deal of respect -- continues to serve me well. Our successful efforts led to South Carolina being removed from the lawsuit.
The centerpiece of our court-approved plan was assigning a unique mission to each of our state-supported higher education institutions. SCSU's unique mission was a terminal degree in education. That uniqueness did not last long because a few years later the Higher Education Commission allowed another institution to offer, what effectively was, the same degree. So in 1998 when Congress was expanding University Transportation Centers (UTC) in the "Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century," I saw -- and took advantage of -- an opportunity to restore a unique mission to SCSU, our only state-supported historically black university.
The Blue Ribbon Committee also promised to enhance SCSU's endowment. That promise was never kept, and I have always been bothered by this oversight. Consequently, four years ago my wife, a Library Science graduate of SCSU, and I established the "James and Emily Clyburn Endowment for Archives and History" at our alma mater. And God willing, by the time we celebrate our 50-year reunion next May, that Endowment will reach $2 million.
When I ran for Congress I promised to stay focused on the future, but not lose sight of the past. In my opinion, that means doing everything I can to help right past wrongs, and SCSU's offerings and funding are among those past wrongs.
The current criticisms have to do with the UTC I designated for SCSU, and what has transpired in the dozen years since that occurred. Again, history comes into play. The history of this project provides for a better understanding of the lack of progress, but yet I have failed to see it reported in this or any newspaper save one. Here is a quick synopsis:
-- The UTC funds I secured required a state match and it took five years for SCSU to raise those funds. During that period preliminary engineering and design work was being done and architect Harvey Ezekiel was hired.
-- The 2005 groundbreaking was followed by a series of problems:
-- SCSU learned it did not own three acres in the middle of the 24-acre site and negotiations to purchase that property took a year and half.
-- It took another year for the City of Orangeburg to deed the streets involved to the university.
-- The State of South Carolina then ordered the university to complete a traffic impact study which took an additional six months.
-- In 2008, the architect was diagnosed with cancer, just as the permitting process was moving forward with the State Engineer's Office.
-- After a record number of permit denials and modification demands, the project finally won approval of the FHA and State Engineer's Office in 2009.
-- The University opened the project for bids on December 18, 2009, and received 18. The low bidder was selected, but four of the companies protested. Those protests weren't resolved until April of this year.
-- About that time Mr. Ezekiel lost his bout with cancer, and the university had to secure another architect to oversee construction.
-- Last month, all of the entities involved in the project met and final approval was given for construction to begin.
-- While all of this was going on, the University had three different presidents and the staff of the UTC changed four or five times.
Were mistakes made during this process? Probably. I don't know a whole lot about accounting systems, and I would never make excuses for inefficiency or ineffectiveness but neither rises to the level of misappropriating funds. The millions to construct the physical facility were never given to SCSU. That money, except for engineering and architecture fees still sit in the Treasury.
The reason the new president (whom the previous Board hired because they thought him to be competent, but subsequently fired because he refused to be a puppet) and the new Board leadership (whom the vast majority of the alumni consider to be committed) can say that the funds can be accounted for is because they are aware that the bulk of the transportation money being questioned funded the National Summer Transportation Institute for which SCSU was the lead agency. Those funds passed through SCSU to scores of colleges and universities across the country and no wrongdoing was ever alleged.
People who would love to see SCSU shuttered are getting help from some unlikely sources. SCSU's troubles lay largely at the feet of a few former and current board members who were cited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities for micromanaging and interfering in the academic and athletic operations of the university.
We have witnessed the dark side of a rush to judgment with the recent Shirley Sherrod case. Just as she was unfairly and inaccurately accused, it is my belief that history may report this story differently. SCSU has welcomed audits at the state and federal levels. We ought to let that accounting take place through the proper channels, not through the media. Let's leave it to the experts, and withhold judgment until all the facts are in.
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