Last Sunday, Kris Bennett gathered with other South Carolina State students for a memorial to three students killed in the Orangeburg Massacre back on Feb. 8, 1968. They remembered the sacrifices of civil rights activists and lit a memorial flame on their campus, the state’s only public historically black college.
Two days later, Bennett was sitting in a language class when a few cellphones went off. Then more chimed.
As her professor lectured, unaware of the legislative fire storm igniting across the state, cellphone ringtones filled the classroom. Bennett peered at her own screen.
The Charleston County School of the Arts graduate and her peers sat stunned.
A state House subcommittee — and since then, a second one — had voted to close their financially ailing college for at least three semesters starting this fall. All of S.C. State’s nearly 3,000 students would have to transfer or, if their academic performances aren’t high enough, simply leave.
Now, as the Legislative Black Caucus calls for President Thomas Elzey’s ouster and lawmakers argue over the proviso, as alumni protest and accusations of financial incompetence fly, students like Bennett sit as the innocent victims unsure what their futures hold.
With just one year of college left, Bennett wants to graduate from the school where her mom was the first female basketball player to see her jersey retired. “It’s too much to digest at the moment,” Bennett said. “The fact that this comes in mid-semester has really upset students. You just don’t drop a bomb like that.”
S.C. State isn’t closing, not yet anyway. The plan faces a long and winding road ahead through the full House and then the Senate.
But the legislative blowup, in the middle of Black History Month, has rattled students, alarmed parents and terrified faculty and staff who would be terminated.
Rep. Jim Merrill, a Charleston Republican who’s the new chairman of the education subcommittee that sent forth the plan, said shuttering S.C. State temporarily would save it from a certain death by slow financial blood-letting.
The toughest part, Merrill said, is knowing students would suffer.
“This is honestly a very basic question of what would be worse for the kids — a painful experience that’s inconvenient now, or do nothing and leave it up to fate? I dare say the second would be more painful,” he said.
S.C. State faces serious financial problems in the wake of past corruption convictions of its board chairman and others, allegations of mismanagement involving millions, the firing of past presidents and top administrators, and steep drops in enrollment. Elzey, who brought his financial background to the school in 2013, has asked the state for millions to pay its immediate bills, plus potentially millions more to keep the school’s head above floodwaters of debt.
“Our greatest concern is that it not die a slow and painful death,” Merrill said. “The intent is to start S.C. State again with its core curriculum intact, with a leaner and more efficient staff.”
Under the proviso, S.C. State would close as of July 1 and pay tuition for current students with 2.5 GPAs or higher and who qualify to transfer to another public college or historically black university. Those tuition payments would last for up to four years. State officials would factor in lottery scholarships and federal assistance to determine what they would pay for each student. Payments would end for students whose GPAs fall below 2.5.
But where up to 3,000 students might go remains unclear.
Spokespeople from The Citadel, University of South Carolina and Clemson University all said they weren’t aware of talks with their schools about admitting S.C. State students.
And how much would it cost to pay several thousands of students’ tuition for four years?
Merrill said legislators don’t have an estimate yet.
Regardless, that money should be used to pull the school out of its financial mess rather than to close it temporarily, Bennett argued.
“You should just give that back to the school,” she said. “It makes no sense.”
Many of the proviso’s details remain to be tweaked, including the 2.5 GPA threshold. “I’m not wedded to that,” Merrill said.
S.C. State officials didn’t respond to a request for estimates of how many students have 2.5 GPAs or lower.
However, at 14 percent, the school has the state’s second-lowest four-year graduation rate among public research and comprehensive colleges. And only 36 percent graduate in six years compared to the state average of 61 percent, according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education data.
Merrill wonders if the school can do better. “I really want to emphasize that the state and S.C. State, we owe these kids,” he said.
Michael Allen, head of the school’s Charleston alumni chapter, credits it with what has turned into a 35-year career with the National Park Service. It started with an internship while he was a student. Allen’s wife also is an alumna, and now their daughter is a junior.
“What we are in life personally and professionally we owe to S.C. State,” Allen said. “That’s why our daughter is there.”
Buildings on the once-thriving campus bear proud names like Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr. And it remains a key producer of black teachers, nuclear engineers, entrepreneurs and others.
Yet, its students tend to come from low-income school districts, ones like those the S.C. Supreme Court ruled recently have not provided students the educational opportunity required by the Constitution.
About 92 percent of S.C. State students receive financial aid. Many are the first in their families to go to college.
Bennett recalls visiting S.C. State and seeing three African-American men walking in laboratory jackets. She felt drawn to the racial diversity lacking at many educational institutions.
While most of the state’s public colleges and universities measure full-time black faculty by mere handfuls, S.C. State employs more than a third of the state’s African-American professors, both tenured and non-tenured. As of fall 2013, it employed 122 black professors compared to nine at The Citadel, nine at MUSC, 19 at Coastal Carolina and 22 at the College of Charleston.
“I want to see people who look like me doing something positive with their lives,” said Bennett, whose high school was mostly white. “Everyone was really warm and welcoming. I didn’t feel like a number.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a North Charleston native, will deliver the school’s commencement address. Will it be the school’s last? He doesn’t think so.
“South Carolina State has served tens of thousands of low-income and minority students for decades, and will continue to do so in the years to come,” Scott said.
He also encouraged school leaders to give legislators a detailed plan to steer their financial ship forward. “Thousands of hardworking, dedicated students in Orangeburg are depending on it,” Scott said.
Many students wonder what they would return to in a year or two, if the school must close.
Perhaps they would come back to a USC Orangeburg, one of the plans floating around. The University of South Carolina already runs a network of satellite campuses.
“It would be the most natural and easiest plan to implement,” Merrill said.
Then again, Clemson University is a land-grant college as is S.C. State.
Weighing heavily is the reality that S.C. State would lose its national accreditation if it closes even temporarily, and reapplying for it would take about two years. It’s already on probation.
S.C. State’s finances must be addressed first. Neither USC nor Clemson wants to touch an institution with debt that could push $100 million, Merrill said.
“You can’t tote around $73 million in bonded indebtedness, $12 million in debts to contractors and suppliers, and another $6 million owed to the state and not have an effect,” Merrill added.
But if S.C. State becomes part of another university system, its 119-year history would close. And black leaders promised to fight that idea.
“You can’t erase all that history by closing the school for two years and turning it into USC Orangeburg over finances,” Bennett said. “It’s a legacy.”
Closing the school even temporarily will kill it, said Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican.
Next week, he will push his plan to order a third-party forensic audit of S.C. State. He also wants to appoint a trustee, such as a bankruptcy judge, who could order unilateral cuts to the university.
Gov. Nikki Haley also stopped short of endorsing a plan to close S.C. State but said she wouldn’t give the school more money for now either.
“Frustrations are running high,” Haley told The Post and Courier. “What we need to do is kind of pull back and remind S.C. State they need to take some actions here. They need to hear this call.”
As the debate raged, Elzey urged students to stay calm and keep studying.
“It’s a terrible thing to put this kind of burden on our students, particularly those students doing what they came here to do — which is transform their lives,” Elzey said.
Travis Gladden, a student at the school along with his brother, was home studying when his mom hollered from the living room as the news came on: “Travis, your school is closing!”
The senior education major plans to become a math teacher, and that includes graduate school at S.C. State. His brother, Nathan, is a freshman.
“We just have to have faith in God that the school isn’t going anywhere,” Gladden said.
Kedrick Pasley always wanted to attend S.C. State partly because his parents are alumni. His younger sister, a School of the Arts senior, also wants to carry on that legacy.
But now, as Pasley sits halfway through his junior year, he wonders if he’ll be able to graduate from the school.
“I want my senior year to go out with a bang,” said Pasley, who’s the school mascot.
After a successful four years at School of the Arts, a predominantly white school, the communications major wanted to experience an historically black university. It will help him personally and professionally, he said.
His mother, Rita Pasley, remains certain he — and the school — will succeed. “He’ll be back in the bulldog suit next week,” she said.
Jeremy Borden contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.