S.C. State learns to live with a lot less

South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. The Charleston Alumni Chapter of South Carolina State University is holding its monthly meeting Wednesday.

ORANGEBURG — At South Carolina State University, the signs are small and large:

Pieces of white printer paper taped to near-empty vending machines warn that prices have gone up.

The 119-year-old barbershop in the Kirkland W. Green Student Center shut its blinds in March.

Last week, the college’s interim president announced nine buildings on campus were closing, including the I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium, to save money on heating and maintenance.

For the first time in years, S.C. State has a balanced budget — made possible through millions of dollars worth of cuts that some worry will do more harm than good.

On June 30, the board approved a $67.8 million budget for fiscal year 2016 based on a projected enrollment of 2,650 students. It includes more than $4 million in cuts to student scholarships and mandatory 12-day furloughs for all employees.

Under the new budget, more than a dozen staff members have lost their jobs. Twenty-three faculty members have been let go. The instructors who are left will have to add an extra class to their course load.

“We’re another Greece. That is, you cannot improve Greece or the university in this matter by demanding that you live within your means if means are defined as the amount of money generated by enrollment,” said Willie Legette, a political science professor at S.C. State. “There are consequences to cuts.”

Like employee morale and student recruitment. Legette worries budget reductions will hurt S.C. State’s ability to compete against other institutions for talented students at a time when the university depends on student tuition more than ever.

“When you come to an institution that’s been cut to the bare bones, it makes it harder for the institution to compete,” said the Rev. Joe Darby, a S.C. State alumnus and vice president of the Charleston NAACP. “Time will tell. To me, they look a little bit draconian.”

In the past several years, S.C. State has suffered massive deficits, top-level turnover, waning enrollment and a public corruption scandal that landed its former board chairman, Jonathan Pinson, in prison. Four of Pinson’s co-conspirators were sentenced to three years on probation and restitution earlier this week.

For these reasons, the university has been threatened with closure and losing its accreditation. The new interim board of trustees, appointed by state officials and charged with untangling its financial mess, has vowed not to take any option off the table, including major budget reductions.

Earlier this year, the university launched a three-year capital campaign to raise $20 million to help pay off its debts and fund scholarships for students. Although total donations are down this year, more people are giving, according to Acting President Franklin Evans. He needs alumni “to step up in a major way.”

On Friday morning, in the school’s engineering auditorium, Evans made his appeal to more than 200 alumni at S.C. State’s annual alumni convention.

“It is extremely important for alumni to reengage in the university,” Evans said. “I appreciate the $25, the $50, even the $1,000 (donations), but when you look at the cost of education for one student — in-state, about $22,000, out-of-state, $31,000 — the $25, even the $1,000, only takes a little bit off.”

Amid the turmoil, a few glimmers of hope have emerged. In June, the university’s regional accrediting agency allowed S.C. State to keep its accreditation and remain on probation for another year. Then the state Budget and Control Board agreed to extend S.C. State’s $6 million loan repayment to the year 2020. At Friday’s convention, alumni, meanwhile, were largely optimistic about the school’s future.

“There’s no doubt that the university is still in a crisis mode,” said Bill Hamilton, of the class of 1973. “But I think we will climb out of this hole and be a viable institution again.”

So far, 2,513 students have enrolled in the coming school year. Evans said he expects to see an influx of 500 students enroll in the next 30 days, bringing total enrollment closer to last year’s level. Evans acknowledged the additional hardship students and parents will face with limited scholarships available, but he said the cuts were necessary to maintain financial stability.

“We have to kind of multitask and not only try to reach (students) through scholarships and talk about the good and value that our programs bring, but we also have to touch the heart and let them know that coming to South Carolina State is a family environment,” he said. “We do more than just give you a degree; we help you develop as individuals and that’s what we’re selling at South Carolina State.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.