Students worried, others hopeful in wake of S.C. State’s public corruption scandal

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Students are worried about South Carolina State University’s accreditation and the value of their degrees after learning two former officials were indicted in an alleged kickback scheme.

University leaders said the school’s accreditation isn’t in jeopardy, and they already have begun to launch reforms to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future. They also said they think all employees who possibly were involved in criminal or unethical behavior have been purged. And they hope the school can move forward after years of turmoil and scandal.

On Thursday, former board Chairman Jonathan Pinson, 42, of Simpsonville was indicted on charges that he used his influence at the university to broker a land deal in exchange for a $100,000 Porsche Cayenne. He also was accused of steering a contract to a business associate to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert. Pinson and Eric Robinson, 42, of Greer were both charged with attempting to affect interstate commerce by extortion and participating in an alleged kickback scheme in connection with the concert.

Pinson and Robinson pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment.

Earlier Thursday, Michael Bartley, 48, the school’s former police chief, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the land deal, for which the Orangeburg resident would have received an ATV and about $30,000 in cash.

Law enforcement officials have said more indictments and charges are expected.

But many students on the Orangeburg campus Thursday were less concerned about what was unfolding in federal courts across the state than they were about the school losing its accreditation or how the university’s declining reputation could cheapen the value of their degrees.

Several also said that they knew of students who transferred to other schools, or were considering doing so, because of those concerns.

Alexandria Jones, a 22-year-old senior, said, “I know some students who were worried about the accreditation, and people were talking about money being misplaced. I’m here on scholarship so that didn’t really bother me. But the people who are paying to go here, I can see how they would be upset about that.”

Darreshia Mivens, a 23-year-old senior, said that after eight high-level employees, including Bartley, were fired in February, the school held a meeting to answer questions and quell fears.

“A lot of the students were talking about how we might lose our accreditation so they might as well transfer,” she said. “If you’re only a freshman or sophomore, you’re just starting out. You can go ahead and leave because it’s still early.” But such decisions are more difficult for upperclassmen.

Enrollment at the university has declined about 12 percent in the past several years, from 4,933 in the fall of 2007 to 4,326 in the fall of 2011, according the most recent data available from the state’s Commission on Higher Education.

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said the university, with more than 4,000 students, is a viable institution. “It’s not an institution on the verge of extinction. I wouldn’t worry about it being around next year,” he said.

Declining enrollment, however, places a financial hardship on schools, which in recent years derive much of their income from tuition, he said.

S.C. State likely also faces special challenges as a historically black school, Jones said. In years past, such institutions were the only option for many talented black students. “But now, if you’re a talented African-American student, everybody in the world wants you.”

U.S. House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, the school’s most well-known graduate, could not be reached Friday for comment about the indictments or what he thinks would be best for the future of the school.

Current board Chairman Walter Tobin said the school’s accreditation is not in danger. And systems for financial checks and balances are being developed.

People who were engaged in illegal or unethical behavior have been fired or left the university, Tobin said. And even the school’s board, which has a long and contentious history, is ready to move forward. “If all parties work together for the betterment of the university, I think we can overcome this,” he said of the latest scandal.

Larry Watson, a history professor and president of the school’s Faculty Senate, said he also is hopeful about the school’s future, which he thinks for years has faced a leadership crisis.

The tension was palpable between the faculty and former school President George Cooper, who resigned in March. In January 2011, the faculty voted it had “no confidence” in Cooper’s leadership.

But the faculty is encouraged by Tobin’s leadership at the board-level, Watson said. Tobin, a former school superintendent, has academic experience and strong leadership skills, just what’s needed to push the school forward in the right direction, Watson said.

The university is beginning a search for a permanent president, he said. If the person hired for the top administrative post is of Tobin’s caliber, the university’s future likely will be much better than its recent past.

Christina Elmore contributed to this report. Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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