By Ashley Barker
Published July 14, 2014
S.C. State University President Thomas J. Elzey told local lawmakers last week that more financial support is needed to restabilize the Orangeburg institution.
During a Charleston County legislative delegation meeting on Thursday, Elzey emphasized that he is optimistic about the university’s future despite the “slight recession” he said it is going through now.
“Our university, even though we’ve had challenges, is an institution that is steeped in resilience. This university has been through hard times,” Elzey said. “It has had issues in the past, but it has always rebounded, and we are on the rebound now.”
Above: Members of the Charleston County legislative delegation held a meeting Thursday at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Right: S.C. State University President Thomas J. Elzey spoke to the delegation about his institution’s need for more financial support. (Photos/Ashley Barker)
He said more than 700 students graduated from S.C. State in the 2013-14 year. More than 6,000 applications from prospective students have been received as of June, and enrollment is hovering near 3,400 students.
“We graduated students who have gone out into positions all across this state, across this region and across the nation,” he said.
Earlier this year, Elzey asked the state for $13.6 million. Gov. Nikki Haley responded in May by approving a $6 million loan that is expected to be paid back within a year and is managed by the state’s Budget and Control Board. The loan, Elzey said, is not nearly enough and will likely not be paid back in time without more help.
“We were able to pay our food service vendor; we were able to pay our facilities contractor and pay our light bill with The Department of Public Utilities. But we still have a lot of outstanding vendors,” he said.
In May, the school laid off about 90 part-time and temporary employees because of “significant budgetary challenges,” according to the termination letter sent by the school.
The university’s board of trustees is now working on the fiscal 2015 budget, which Elzey said is going to be balanced. He said that it will be painful and difficult but that the budget will preserve academic and athletic programs along with student services. He did not say whether more layoffs are expected.
Rep. Bill Crosby, R-North Charleston, asked how the university could possibly finish in the black while still owing vendors. Elzey responded by saying debt is not included in the new budget, which will focus only on the current year’s operations. He said the university has negotiated with several of its vendors to delay repayment.
“We are not paying interest on any of that at this time, and we’re working on a plan to pay them over time,” Elzey said.
S.C. State’s handling of its financial problems and board of trustees will be critical to its accreditation status.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges put S.C. State on probation in June because it failed to comply with governing board and financial resources requirements. Probation is the most severe sanction an institution can receive while still maintaining its accreditation.
A special committee from the commission will visit S.C. State in the spring to re-evaluate the university.
Working with a smaller budget
The state’s $12.5 million annual appropriation from the Legislature is simply not enough, Elzey said.
The university is looking for $13 million more from the state to pay off its bills, including the $6 million loan. That money is also needed for student recruitment, faculty retention, deferred maintenance work and technology upgrades.
“At one point in time, South Carolina State received state appropriations of almost $30 million. Now we’re talking $12.5 million,” Elzey said. “There’s a big gap between where we were and where we are now. We know it’s not going to go back to where it was, but certainly it would be helpful if we could secure some of what we had.”
The S.C. State University Foundation recently pledged $1 million to the institution to give financial aid to accepted students who are unsure whether they should attend the university.
Betty Boatwright, the university’s vice president for enrollment management, said a large number of students who have been accepted remain uncommitted because they don’t have enough money to secure class schedules.
“These days, students have choices,” Boatwright said in a statement. “It’s important that prospective students and their parents know that S.C. State has the best offerings and is committed to doing whatever it takes to help its students get a quality college education.”
The $1 million will not be used to pay down any of the university’s bills.
Lawmakers stepping up
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he sent a letter to Haley and S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell urging them to help S.C. State and to call a special session if necessary.
“I think if one of our institutions is in trouble, we need to be there for them. We can find money for anything else in the budget,” Gilliard said. “We should surely find it for one of the greatest institutions in the state of South Carolina, if not the country.”
Gilliard said state funding is not the only answer to the institution’s financial problems. He said S.C. State alumni should open their wallets the way Darla Moore has for the University of South Carolina.
“I admire Darla Moore. She does wonderful things for the institution that she came through. She looked back and gave them a hand,” Gilliard said. “As elected officials, we work with her. She uses her blessings to pay back and look back.”
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said the university should focus on its long-term needs.
“What we don’t want to do is put a Band-Aid on a festering, open, gaping wound. It’s important as legislators to understand that if South Carolina State University fails, the state fails because it’s being supported as a state institution,” Kimpson said. “The state is on the hook for all of the obligations of the university. It’s incumbent upon us to do everything within prudent reason to help the university.”
Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.