ORANGEBURG — D’Autra Stanley loves almost everything about South Carolina State University, from its historic tradition to its talented faculty and the strong sense of family that permeates its campus. Nevertheless, he’s jumping ship when this semester ends.
The sophomore from Atlanta worries that turmoil in his school’s administration and uncertainty over its finances could cost S.C. State its accreditation in the near future.
No such action is pending, but Stanley is transferring to the University of South Carolina just in case.
“It really is a great school,” he said. “It’s just scary to know with all the changes going on, there is a possibility you could lose accreditation, and your degree wouldn’t be worth anything.”
Most students don’t appear ready to follow Stanley’s lead yet. Most of those interviewed, in fact, said they are largely satisfied — even enthusiastic — about the education they are receiving.
But concern over the school’s future is palpable on campus and in the halls of state government.
Not since the civil rights era has S.C. State faced the level of public scrutiny that the state’s only public historically black university is currently experiencing.
Today, the university, which opened the doors to a successful future for generations of black South Carolinians, is in a tailspin. It is plagued by internal turmoil largely of its own making, including declining enrollment, financial shortfalls and a leadership team in disarray after the board chairman stepped down, two board members and the president resigned, and eight top administrators were fired.
The school also is in the midst of a criminal inquiry, but school leaders won’t even say what’s being investigated. Few doubt that the university will survive, but how much it will prosper may depend on dramatic changes — and an unprecedented amount of external oversight and intervention.
For generations, state lawmakers have largely ignored the university, giving it a free hand to operate with little legislative scrutiny.
State Sen. Robert Ford, a black Charleston Democrat, has said his white colleagues generally take a hands-off approach to S.C. State for fear of being called racist. And Rep. Chip Limehouse, a white Republican from Charleston, has said many white lawmakers see the school as their black colleagues’ turf.
This hands-off approach likely contributed to the school’s recent upheaval and a string of problems. Among other things:
The school’s board of trustees fired President George Cooper in June 2010, but a board with two new members rehired him two weeks later.
Cooper fired eight high-level administrators in February for conduct unbecoming of a state employee, but the school never released details of what these people did.
The chairman of the Board or Trustees stepped down in February to spend more time on his business, creating a leadership vacancy. Cooper resigned a month later, leaving another void at the top.
A criminal investigation is under way with top administrators and some board members under the microscope, according to the board’s attorney.
State lawmakers are mulling proposals to shake up and restructure the school’s board.
Public trust in the school has deteriorated, and some students are worried that the value of their degrees will be diminished as a result.
The long-delayed James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center has become emblematic of the school’s management and financial difficulties.
The university launched the much-heralded project in 1998, but has since made little progress, despite shoveling more than $50 million in federal and state money into the effort.
About half the funds were earmarked for a new transportation complex named in honor of U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, a powerful S.C. State alumnus who hauled in much of the money for the project. The other half was for research and educational programs.
The center is still not complete, and school leaders can’t explain what happened to a substantial amount of the money that was set aside for the programs.
The U.S. Department of Transportation shut off further funding for the project in 2006, and it yanked the federal designation three years later.
After a Post and Courier report on the center in 2010, the state’s Legislative Audit Council launched an investigation, which found mismanagement at the core of the center’s problems. The report prompted calls from legislators for more oversight of the project.
The university applied for another grant in an attempt to regain its federal designation, but the move was rejected this year.
Clyburn said he thinks the transportation center was “stymied for no creditable reason at all.” He contends there is no missing money. He also said he pushed for the school to have the transportation program to bring something unique to the university.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the school has a longstanding leadership problem, mostly due to an ineffective Board of Trustees, which she said is beset by constant friction and infighting.
Members have appeared unable to agree on a clear direction for the school or rally behind a leader to take them there. In fact, the school has had five interim and permanent presidents in the last 10 years.
The General Assembly has contributed to the school’s current problems by electing governing board members who don’t have the skills to do the job, Cobb-Hunter said. “When we take the same degree of care in electing board members there as we take at Clemson and (the University of South) Carolina, things will start to change.”
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, former Senate majority leader, said the school’s board members rely too much on administrators to provide them with information they need to make decisions. They would be more effective if they did their own research on issues, he said.
McConnell said the university will have a difficult time focusing on its future while it is bogged down in past problems, such as its struggling transportation center.
“It needs a course correction,” he said. “It deserves better than the controversy, and I think it needs a new start.”
Ret. Army Gen. Walter Johnson, who last month resigned from the board after serving only a year, said the majority of board members were “not doing what needed to be done to identify and solve problems regarding the business side of operations.”
Johnson, who ran Eagle Group International, a multimillion-dollar contracting company, said the university is not being run efficiently because of a lack of leadership, planning and execution of a solid business plan. “I tried to change the board’s approach to problem-solving. I was spectacularly unsuccessful in my efforts,” he said.
History professor Larry Watson, president of the university’s Faculty Senate, said the school has lacked a strong president and administration, which led to problems with the budget and inappropriate appointments to key positions. Those kinds of mistakes have been inexcusable, he said.
Watson also said the state has under-funded the school for years. While all the state’s public colleges and universities have struggled with budget cuts in recent times, S.C. State has historically been cash-poor. The school needs more state money simply to get on par with other institutions, he said.
Few signs of turmoil were evident on campus on a recent afternoon, as students prepared for the last of their final exams and the end of the school year.
Birds chirped and hip-hop music drifted from a dorm window as students strolled brick-lined paths on their way between buildings. A young couple lounged in the shade of an oak tree, chatting quietly and holding hands.
Members of a business fraternity laughed and mugged for a group photo capturing their camaraderie.
But beneath the calm, real concerns lingered about the future of their school.
“I love my school,” said Angel Wheeler, 19, from Anderson, who wants to pursue a career in nursing. “But I would like to see some type of stability here at State.”
Like Wheeler, many students at S.C. State remain proud of their school — fiercely so, in fact. They speak glowingly of the education they are receiving, the hands-on attention they get from professors and the deep sense of culture, community and history that drive campus life here.
Some students shrug off the recent problems, saying they don’t really see how the administrative infighting affects their daily lives. But others worry about the lack of a firm vision for the school and the absence of a permanent leader to guide them.
Several students said they were caught off guard by Cooper’s resignation in March, and don’t feel the school is doing enough to keep them informed about the issues facing the university.
An even bigger worry is the possibility of a rise in tuition and cutbacks in financial aid, they said.
Jasmine Moorman, 19, from Atlanta, said she desperately wants to graduate from S.C. State, but she may not be able to do so if tuition creeps much beyond its current level. “A lot of us here need money,” she said. “And I know a lot of people who aren’t coming back because of that.”
Most of those interviewed said they would be back next year. But Kajuan Williams, 21, of Moncks Corner, said S.C. State becomes a tougher sell the more tuition rises. He said he likes going to a historically black school, “but if the money was the same, I would rather go to USC.”
Rising in the center of campus is a new engineering and computer science building. For students, it seems to be a metaphor for what is right and what is wrong about their school:
The hulking building represents progress. But with a sign out front promising a grand opening in Spring 2012, it also represents typical delays.
“We get a good story about what they want to do to better the school,” said Randall Nesmith, 21, an engineering student from Myrtle Beach. “Hopefully some of that stuff is true.”
Many others with close connections to the school said they think it’s at a crossroads.
Turning it around and positioning it for the future, they said, would require the Legislature to install a governing board with strong academic and business credentials. That board must hire a visionary president who knows how to run a school and must be afforded the resources to get the job done, they said.
“I think it’s safe to say that there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction,” McConnell said. “I think it’s large enough that it’s a clarion call for a new start. And that means a new board, a new look at what’s going on and a new administration.”
Cobb-Hunter said, “There’s no silver bullet to turn S.C. State around. It will take a combination of things.”
Johnson said the school’s 13-member board includes nine alumni, and he thinks that’s too many. With so many alumni, “decisions are not made objectively,” he said. “A realigned mix of trustees will facilitate timely planning and sound policy.”
Clyburn said he thinks alumni need a stronger role in the selection of board members, like the system in place at The Citadel. He also thinks alumni who live outside South Carolina should be able to serve on the board.
“S.C. State has many successful graduates living outside the Palmetto State who could bring a lot to the table if they were allowed to serve on the Board of Trustees,” Clyburn said.
Johnson said the school is academically strong and he remains positive about its future. “Without question, the university has been and continues to be a powerful engine and firm anchor for upward mobility for African-Americans.”
Johnson points to the fact that the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps has produced 31 military officers who have held a general-grade rank.
Watson said the faculty supports hiring a long-term interim president who can stabilize the university and rebuild the school’s image. The school’s mission always has been to provide educational opportunities to under-served students, and that’s still important today, he said.
“We have a niche,” Watson said. “If something happened to us, it would create a void.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.