When South Carolina State University’s new president, Thomas Elzey, attended his first board meeting last summer, he learned that the school expected only about 3,000 students to enroll in the fall.

Declining numbers

S.C. State total fall enrollment over a six-year period:

Year Students

2013 3,461

2012 3,807

2011 4,326

2010 4,362

2009 4,538

2008 4,888

Source: S.C. Commission on Higher Education/S.C. State

That represented a drop of more than 800 students from the previous fall.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” Elzey said.

Public colleges and universities operate largely on money they bring in from tuition and state appropriations. If enrollment is low, the school’s budget will take a hit.

And S.C. State can’t afford any more hits, said Elzey, 60, who came to S.C. State from The Citadel, where he was executive vice president for finance, administration and operations.

When he took the reins at the state’s only public, historically black university June 15, the school was facing a deficit of about $9 million, which it had accumulated over several years.

The university has faced huge problems in recent years, including financial and program issues at the troubled James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center, criminal charges filed against its former board chairman, a former board member, and former police chief, and a faculty so dissatisfied it voted that it had no confidence in the school’s former president.

But Elzey said the school can be turned around. And it’s important that that happen, he said, because it serves some of the state’s lowest-income students who might not be able to get a college degree if it didn’t exist.

“It’s a new day here,” Elzey said. “We’re moving forward.”

While enrollment and financial problems are just two of the issues the school is facing, they are so large and central to the university keeping its doors open that Elzey said he is taking them on first.

Growing the numbers

Elzey said the university already has made drastic budget cuts to put a dent in its deficit. “But we can’t cut our way out of this. We need to grow our way out of this.”

That means enrollment must increase, and many people at the university and off-campus supporters have to get involved. “I’ve characterized it as an all-hands-on-deck effort,” he said.

When he learned early in the summer that enrollment was expected to be only around 3,000 for the fall — that’s total, not the freshman class — he mobilized his staff to address the problem.

They came up with some scholarship money, largely through the school’s foundation. Then they reached out to students who had a tuition balance of less than $1,000. That amount can keep a student from returning to school, he said. Staffers offered scholarships to those students so they could return.

Through those and other efforts, fall enrollment was 3,461 students, he said. He hopes 3,800 students will enroll next fall, and he hopes the numbers will continue to increase. As recently as 2008, there were 4,888 students on campus.

Board Chairman William Small, who also is new to his post, said students at historically black colleges often face financial challenges. Public colleges already had suffered state budget cuts and had to raise tuition to compensate, he said. And new federal rules that make it harder for parents to qualify for loans exacerbated the problem.

The university needs to come up with more scholarship money to help students, he said.

And the school must clean up its reputation after the problems in recent years, he said. Those problems, which were generated by administrators and board members, also contributed to declining enrollment. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot while the state and federal government were shooting us in the chest,” Small said.

Elzey said cleaning up the school’s reputation starts with cleaning up the campus. When he arrived, he said, the clock on the library’s clock tower hadn’t worked for a decade, standing as a beacon of campus neglect. He made sure it got fixed.

And he’s making sure campus buildings and grounds are clean, and the outdoor lighting works. Those things may seem small, he said, but they instill pride in the school.

Student support

Student body President Akeem Brown said Elzey is helping the Student Government Association make major improvements to the student center. That building is especially important in Orangeburg, where there are few off-campus activities available.

And student leaders have come to support their new president, he said, which represents a major change of heart.

Many students, including Brown, strongly supported the university’s hiring interim President Cynthia Warrick as permanent president. They even staged a protest over Elzey’s hiring.

Brown said Warrick allowed students to have a voice in campus matters, and Elzey also is doing that. That’s really what students wanted all along, he said.

Brown said that when he walked into the student center last week, he saw that the walls had been painted garnet and blue, the school’s colors. Elzey, he said, “gets things done.” If he had to give Elzey a letter grade for his performance so far, “I would give him a B-plus.”

Frank discussions

Thomas Cassidy, an English professor and president of the school’s Faculty Senate, said Elzey is doing very well in some areas.

He’s facing enrollment and budget deficit issues head-on, improving the look of the campus and working to raise money.

But he’s not making the faculty an immediate priority by offering raises and hiring new faculty members to fill important positions.

“But we feared much worse,” Cassidy said. “We feared academic infrastructure would be cut.” Now it simply isn’t going to expand.

The faculty had a contentious relationship with former President George Cooper and voted that it had no confidence in his leadership. Cassidy hopes things eventually improve under Elzey, who he said at least is listening to the faculty. “He’s not ignoring us,” Cassidy said. “We’ve had frank discussions.”

Giving back

The school’s alumni also want to help restore respect and dignity to the university.

Michael Allen, a 1982 graduate and community partnership specialist with the National Park Service, is the new chairman of the Charleston alumni chapter.

His wife also is a graduate of the school, and his daughter is a student there. He’s working to grow his group, which is holding fundraising events to raise scholarship money.

“S.C. State allowed me to sit where I am today,” said Allen, who also coordinates the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. “It’s time for renewal.”

Vernell Brown, chairwoman of the university’s National Alumni Association, is a 1971 graduate of the school. She has three adult children who graduated from S.C. State and a granddaughter enrolled there now.

Members of her group support Elzey and the university, she said, and so far, most people think he’s doing a good job. They especially like that he is focusing on finances and enrollment, she said.

But it might take a little time for some people to be convinced that he’s up to the monumental task of pulling S.C. State out of financial crisis.

“There are always questions because he’s a new leader and we’ve had a lot of leaders,” she said. “Some people are taking a wait-and-see attitude.