South Carolina State University's board voted unanimously Tuesday to conduct an external audit on the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center to find out how millions of state and federal dollars have been spent.
The audit also will look at the program's management to determine what the university got for the grant money and whether it was used as intended.
The transportation center was once envisioned as a grand complex to engage young minds in cutting-edge transportation research and study. But the university now plans, in the complex's first phase, to house a maintenance garage for buses and an archive for Jim Clyburn's papers.
Clyburn, the U.S. House majority whip, is a graduate of S.C. State, South Carolina's only public, historically black university.
The audit will be the first comprehensive review of the center, through which more than $50 million has flowed since it was launched in 1998. S.C. State leaders have about half that money on hand for the building's first phase, but they've been unable to explain where the rest of the money went.
A previous federal audit on one of the center's programs, the National Summer Transportation Institute, found the university's financial records in such disarray that accountants couldn't figure out where millions of dollars went.
Board members, who were gathered for a retreat at Charleston Place, said they were responding to public-perception problems raised by a June 14 report in The Post and Courier that revealed that 12 years after the center was launched, the site for a new building sits vacant, no transportation research is under way and the program lost its designation as a federal transportation center.
Trustees asked a university finance official to put together a proposal for the external audit and present it to the board for approval. The audit must review grants for transportation programs and building construction, trustees said.
"It's the responsible thing to do," said board member Maurice Washington, who pushed for the audit. He also said he wants the audit to be conducted in a reasonable amount of time, and to provide a sufficient amount of detail.
It should include how money was spent, to whom it was dispersed, and what the university received for it, he said. It also should include a report on whether grant money was used for the intended purposes.
Board Chairman Jonathan Pinson said, "We're supportive of transparency. I support it 100 percent."
John Smalls, the university's senior vice president of finance and facilities, estimated that the audit would cost about $100,000. He said the university might be able to get approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to use grant money to pay for it.
Smalls also said he disagreed that the university hasn't been accountable for grant money. He said grant money is reviewed every year, but conceded that the review doesn't provide specific details on where the money went. And the reports don't include what programs have accomplished, he said.
"We can account. The problem is, how much detail do you want to see," Smalls said.
"I think, at the end of the day, people are going to want to know about the detail," board member Lumus Byrd said.