ORANGEBURG -- In 1994, the state's Legislative Audit Council found that South Carolina State University's inefficient management left the school vulnerable to the theft or misuse of public money.
Sixteen years later, the situation remains the same at the state's only public historically black university.
The audit council currently is in the middle of an investigation into how millions of state and federal dollars for the school's James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center have been spent. And a 2010 report from financial consultant Elliott Davis found the school's scattered grant management process makes it more likely that the university won't comply with grant requirements.
Why has so little changed in 16 years?
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, attributes the school's problems to ineffective leadership.
The past several presidents haven't been strong leaders, she said. A strong president would "recognize the need for competency and be willing to get rid of incompetent people." That's not happening now, she said.
She also said the state's General Assembly contributes to the university's problems by electing board members who lack skills and don't bring desperately needed resources to the university.
"We need candidates who bring something to the table," she said. "It's not enough to be a graduate of the school and have people like you."
When the race for a seat on S.C. State's board is as important to legislators as one on the board of Clemson University or the University of South Carolina, S.C. State will improve, she said.
Cobb-Hunter also said it's important to remember that S.C. State is an important institution in the state. "It fills a niche" by giving many low-income black students access to a college education, she said.
The school's leadership and financial problems draw a lot of attention, she said. "That leaves the impression that nothing good is happening at S.C. State, and that's not an accurate picture."
S.C. State President George Cooper, who has been on the job about two years, and board Chairman Jonathan Pinson, who has held that post for about a year, could not be reached for comment.
State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said he thinks the university's ongoing management problems are largely due to a lack of oversight by state leaders. The school doesn't receive the same level of scrutiny as other higher education institutions because white state legislators, who make up the majority of the state's General Assembly, "shy away from being called a racist or a bigot."
"If S.C. State was a white institution, everyone would be up in arms," Ford said.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said Ford is probably right about white legislators sometimes taking a hands-off approach to S.C. State. The school is often seen as the purview of black legislators, he said.
Limehouse, who writes the first version of the House higher education budget, also said financial and management problems have likely continued at S.C. State because the university hasn't had any repercussions.
Ford and a racially mixed, bipartisan group of eight other state legislators, including Limehouse, called for the audit council investigation of the school's transportation center last summer after a June Post and Courier investigation revealed the school couldn't explain where millions of dollars for transportation programs went.
The audit is under way and should be complete in early 2011, said Thomas Bardin, the audit council's director.
He has received a copy of the recent report from Davis, he said, and it includes some of the same financial and management problems that were cited in the audit council's 1994 review of the university. The problems noted in that report include a lack of management controls that increase the likelihood of theft and misuse of university funds.
Bardin said the school and the General Assembly apparently didn't follow up on the audit council's recommendations.
"It's up to the agencies to implement the recommendations," he said. "And it's up to the General Assembly to make sure they're implemented."
State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom said he doesn't know specifically what's going on at S.C. State. The state's higher education institutions operate independently of state oversight, he said. They don't have to report to him the specific details on how they spend money.
Limehouse said perhaps it's time for the state to take another look at establishing a board of regents to oversee the state's higher education institutions.
Richard Reid, an Orangeburg historian and graduate of S.C. State, said he's not sure what goes on inside the institution. But, in the process of writing a series on the school's presidents for the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, he's seen a clear pattern of financial problems.
Reid, an archivist at Voorhees College, has strong personal and emotional ties to S.C. State, he said. He was a student there in 1968 when state troopers opened fire on black students after they had tried to gain access to a local bowling alley. Three students were killed and 28 wounded in the incident, which came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
And he was there when the university broke ground on the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center complex more than five years ago. That project stalled after the groundbreaking and only got under way this past summer.
"The General Assembly just isn't doing enough to see S.C. State advance," he said. "They know what's going on up there."
It's disturbing to see internal problems at his alma mater keep the school from accomplishing all that it could in the state, he said. "It's like someone sticking a dagger in me."