Don’t push S.C. State off cliff

FILE/AP The South Carolina State University seal.

The buzz in Columbia around struggling South Carolina State University is staggering.

Two subcommittees of the House Ways and Means Committee have recommended that the state suspend operations at the school for at least three semesters, a rash, premature “solution” that would make a bad situation worse.

Surprisingly, House Speaker Jay Lucas supports that suggestion as a way to “rally around this historical institution and offer sound assistance.”

And the Legislative Black Caucus wants the Orangeburg school’s board of trustees to ask for the resignation of President Thomas Elzey. He has said he will not resign.

The folly of these actions is particularly glaring in light of the fact that a state-mandated audit has yet to be completed. Neither S.C. State nor the legislators who demanded the audit know whether the report will provide a course of action to save the school, or whether its message will be less optimistic.

Of course, legislators are frustrated by S.C. State’s seemingly unending money problems. But jumping the gun on the audit, pushing out the president, discontinuing classes, firing staff and paying for qualified students to attend other schools would all be nails in the school’s coffin. It would hardly qualify as “sound assistance.”

It is impossible to blame the present school administration for all of the school’s ills. Its financial problems are longstanding, and S.C. State advocates have said for years that the college lacked adequate state support. Certainly, S.C. State doesn’t enjoy a broad alumni presence in the Legislature as do some other state colleges.

But S.C. State still has a lot to answer for. Significant factors in its downward spiral have been inadequate management, insufficient oversight and corruption among staff and board members.

So far, Mr. Elzey has tried to be part of the solution. It is fair to question whether he has demonstrated the strong leadership needed to get the school back on track. The audit, which should be completed soon, might answer questions about Mr. Elzey’s record thus far as S.C. State’s president. It should certainly provide perspective to his proposed solutions.

He left his job as vice president of finance at The Citadel to take the helm of S.C. State in July of 2013 when it was already in grave danger. Enrollment was shrinking. Debt was mounting. Its accreditation was in jeopardy. And its reputation had suffered immeasurably.

Mr. Elzey has made cuts and produced a plan to go forward, but its success depends on the state increasing its financial support significantly, at least until the school gets on its feet.

The public deserves to have the accounting that the audit will provide. So do Mr. Elzey and the rest of the S.C. State team.

As the state’s only public university that is historically black, S.C. State is important. Many of the students it serves are either financially or academically ineligible for other state schools.

Certainly, suspending operations for three semesters would threaten, if not terminate, the school’s ability to continue playing that role. The university would lose its accreditation, and students would thereby lose access to federal financial aid. S.C. State would have to reapply for accreditation after reopening, and that process usually takes two years.

S.C. State’s critical financial situation is a knotty problem. Legislators might convince themselves that closing the school and starting over would be easier and more efficient than addressing the daunting challenges.

But the very fact that they are considering such a drastic move before even receiving the informed advice they requested — and paid for — suggests that they are eager to find an easy way out.

Even if it dooms S.C. State to failure.