Wait for S.C. State audit facts

Several hundred people gather at the South Carolina Statehouse for a rally to protest a proposal to close South Carolina State University for at least a year on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

First state legislators wanted to close South Carolina State University for three semesters. Now some want to force an administrative house-cleaning, starting with school President Thomas Elzey.

As they further deliberate how to handle this prickly, perennial higher ed problem, lawmakers should apply a little logic to their own course of action.

Consider:

— For years, S.C. State University has experienced financial and administrative trouble.

— A board chairman and some school administrators were found guilty of crimes.

— Plans for a much heralded transportation center have languished.

— State auditors offered guidance years ago to repairing some of the management inefficiencies, but to no avail.

— In 2010, President George Cooper was fired by the board then reinstated two weeks later.

And when Thomas Elzey took over as president in mid-2013, the former executive vice president of finance and administration at The Citadel found out that S.C. State was in even deeper trouble than he’d been told.

It also became clear that the board of trustees was dysfunctional, so new members were chosen.

After assessing the extent of S.C. State’s financial morass, he and the board faced the unpleasant task of asking the Legislature for money to pay off debts and stabilize the school.

That was the first real business legislators had with Mr. Elzey, and it’s not surprising that it didn’t leave members hoping for more.

But now the Legislature is ready to get rid of Mr. Elzey, whose main fault appears to be that he is the bearer of bad tidings.

And 6th District Rep. James Clyburn, an alumnus who has remained much involved in S.C. State, has added his voice in calling for Mr. Elzey’s removal.

Where were these political leaders when the damage was being done at S.C. State? That would have been a good time to press for changes.

Instead, some seem intent upon dismissing Mr. Elzey and the board even before a state-mandated audit is completed — an audit that could be pivotal in turning the school around. Also, President Elzey is due to present a detailed plan for cutting expenses at next week’s meeting of the school’s board of trustees.

Giving Mr. Elzey his walking papers prematurely would further erode confidence in the school, and likely discourage students from choosing to attend S.C. State. Low enrollment is already a significant reason for the college’s problems.

Similarly, the legislators’ plan for a clean sweep of the board smacks of being punitive.

There is no question that S.C. State cannot continue without dramatic changes in its scope and its operations. And while the state should adequately support the school, and all public colleges, taxpayers cannot be expected to continually bail S.C. State out for troubles born out of mismanagement.

But legislators need to back off plans to close the school temporarily or to get rid of Mr. Elzey and the entire board of trustees.

It would make much more sense to provide the opportunity for the president to present a comprehensive plan to rescue the school, as soon as he has the information ordered by the State Budget and Control Board.

The audit is slated for completion in March. See what it reveals, and then give college officials an opportunity to recommend a solution.

Maybe it will require something less than a crippling closure or the wholesale administrative disruption envisioned by our lawmakers. Logic demands all the facts before action.