South Carolina State University is being placed on a 12-month warning by its accrediting agency, but President Thomas Elzey says he’s “extraordinarily confident that we will be able to address these concerns.”
Elzey, who took office on Monday, said the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools notified him about the warning by phone Thursday, but has not yet given him information about specific violations or what steps the university will have to take to remove the warning.
“There are two core standards that we have fallen short on: the goal of the governing board and financial resources,” he said.
Elzey said he wanted to assure students that their education is not at risk because of the warning.
“We want to be very, very clear,” he said. “This will not affect anyone’s degree ... program or threaten this university’s standing.”
SACS does not take away accreditation without following a process, he said. The warning is part of the process, and he will fully follow every step.
“As I understand it, during the 12 months they will be monitoring us and they will ask us to respond to some specific deficiencies in the materials that were sent to them,” he said.
Communication between SACS and the university has been ongoing since April, when SACS requested information about various issues including the university’s financial base and history, the board’s policy on conflicts of interest for members and governance issues.
In May, former interim President Dr. Cynthia Warrick’s administration prepared a response for SACS.
Elzey said that happened before his watch and he doesn’t know where it falls short in responding to the issues.
“My intention is to review what was submitted, prepare for response to them (SACS). We will have some time to do that and it’s my intention that we will do a thorough and adequate job in responding, that we will be comprehensive and we will be transparent,” he said.
He said he’s already looked over the May report and has some “ideas where they might not have responded as fully or clearly as they should have.”
Elzey said he plans to be prepared to tell the board at next week’s retreat why the report was not sufficient.
He said he’s been involved in accreditation processes numerous times at various universities across the country and knows what an accreditation team is looking for.
Dr. Pamela Cravey, coordinator of communications at SACS, reported that the organization is looking at board conflict of interest, the distinction of board and administrative authority, financial stability and control and Title IV responsibilities.
The T&D could not reach Board Chair Dr. Walter L. Tobin for comment, but trustee Dr. Dennis Nielsen said that he knew of no instances of board conflict of interest. If someone was getting value from the university and serving on the board at the same time, that would be conflict of interest.
However, Nielsen, who was appointed to the board last September by Gov. Nikki Haley, said the board has been placed in a difficult position in regard to the separation of board and administrative responsibilities.
“The problem while I have been on the board is that our administration, at the time, did not perform the kind of administrative responsibilities that a president needs to do,” he said.
S.C. State was placed on a one-year warning in 2008 for, among other things, allowing its board to interfere in fundraising and sports activities that SACS says should have been controlled by the administration. The warning was lifted after the university showed it had the proper policies in place and that the board was not interfering with the administration’s role.
A warning is the lesser of two sanctions SACS can impose, and can precede probation.
Akeem Brown, president of the S.C. State Student Government Association, said that students have confidence in Elzey’s ability to address the issue.
“We fully support our president in regard to how he is going to follow through with this,” he said. “We believe he has a plan to fight this issue. We will continue doing what our parents sent us here to do and that is to maintain academic excellence and graduate.”
Elzey said the university will respond to SACS and, at the end of the 12-month period, and the organization will review the university’s response. S.C. State’s warning may be removed at that time. The worst-case scenario is that the university could be placed on probation, he said.
“That will not happen. Let me say it again. That will not happen,” he said.
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