New S.C. State trustees say school has ‘huge, huge’ problems

Members of the new interim board of trustees at South Carolina State University pledged more oversight at the embattled historically black college when they convened for the first time Wednesday.

Gov. Nikki Haley and other state officials appointed the seven-member board of trustees earlier this month to turn things around at the state’s only historically black public university. The trustees, who are slated to serve through June 30, 2018, elected Charleston real estate developer Charlie Way chairman of the board and former AT&T executive James Clark vice chair.

“We all know South Carolina State has got some problems. It’s got some huge, huge problems,” Way said at the outset of the meeting at the university’s Orangeburg campus. “As my father used to say, this ox is in the ditch and we’re here to get this ox out of the ditch.”

Over the past several years, S.C. State has weathered management problems, financial shortfalls, leadership turnover, declining enrollment, a corruption scandal in addition to threats of closure and loss of accreditation.

According to a presentation from accountant Tom McNeish of the Elliott Davis Decosimo accounting firm, S.C. State owes almost $20 million in short-term obligations to its creditors, including $6 million to the state from an emergency loan approved in April. That loan is expected to be paid back at the end of June.

“We’ve got a major budget deficit and cash flow problems,” acting President W. Franklin Evans admitted at Wednesday’s meeting. “We’ve certainly got to do things differently.”

Vice chair Clark questioned whether the measures the university already has taken to reduce its deficit, including its spending and hiring freeze, personnel and budget reductions and employee furlough program, have been strong enough.

“The corrective actions do not appear to be in keeping with the downsizing in students,” Clark told Evans. “I hope you’ll prove me wrong.”

Last summer, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges accreditation agency placed S.C. State on probation, the agency’s most serious sanction, due to the university’s financial difficulties. On June 9, S.C. State will have to make its case before the regional agency’s board in order to keep its accreditation intact.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, Charleston entrepreneur and trustee Steve Swanson, said the biggest issue S.C. State faces isn’t its finances, but its troubled public perception.

“We’re certainly not here to close the school down. We’re here to get the school back on track. We’re here to do what’s necessary to make those changes,” Swanson said. “Every option has to be on the table.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.