COLUMBIA - The state Inspector General's Office has begun investigating South Carolina State University days after state lawmakers learned the school has a deficit of more than $4 million and needs $13 million to pay bills and loans.
Inspector General Patrick Maley confirmed the probe Wednesday to The State newspaper but would not discuss specifics.
Maley's agency examines "fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, misconduct and wrongdoing" in the state's executive branch, its website says.
Lawmakers called for an investigation after learning details of the school's financial problems. Last month, university President Thomas Elzey wrote to state budget leaders, saying an estimated $13 million in outstanding bills and loans is almost double last year's total for the state's only historically black college.
State budget leaders asked the school to submit a plan to shore up its balance sheet within two weeks.
S.C. State spokesman Elizabeth Mosely-Hawkins said Thursday that university leaders had no comment on the investigation because it was an ongoing, preliminary review.
The school's board chairman said last week that S.C. State has money to keep operating but he did not say for how long.
The school has gone through both leadership and financial turmoil in recent years.
Elzey told The Post and Courier in November that 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.
Declining enrollment was one of the major causes of the school's financial woes, he said. And school leaders were working to boost those numbers.
The enrollment declines have been dramatic in recent years. In the fall of 2008, 4,888 students were enrolled. This past fall, only 3,461 students enrolled.
Lawmakers said they wanted to see the administration's plan before committing to giving the university more money.
"This school has been an embarrassment to the state and to higher education in South Carolina for the past 10 years," said Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, adding he is hopeful about the college's new leadership. "But time is short. There's an awful lot of frustration in the General Assembly with this institution."
Rep. Jerry Govan, an Orangeburg Democrat who graduated from S.C. State, said the school needs money to help get out of its hole. "We're not at the point where we should throw in the towel," he said.
Some legislators are opposed to an investigation.
Earlier this week, state Sens. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston and John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, wrote a letter to state newspapers stating the state shouldn't dump an investigation on the school right now.
Elzey came to the General Assembly with his request six months before the end of the fiscal year with his request for money. He also outlined the reasons for cash flow shortfall and initiatives to address the problems, they stated.
In addition to enrollment shortfalls, the school has faced significant debt service, a reduction in federal Plus Loan and Pell Grants for students and the elimination of certain non-recurring sources of revenue.
Other legislators agreed the 118-year-old school needs to survive.
"This state needs this school," said Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. "We need the diversity it brings."
The State reporter Andrew Shain and Post and Courier reporter Diane Knich contributed to this report.