More than two years ago in 2015, the fiscal crisis at South Carolina State University came to a head when state lawmakers issued what amounted to an ultimatum: Get the university on track or it could close.
The ensuing months produced a solution that saved the state’s only publicly supported historically black university. A key component in getting state dollars for S.C. State debt was a new seven-member board of trustees recruited and specially selected by lawmakers. Each new trustee had a track record of success in his or her field, bringing invaluable expertise to the group. Most are devoting time almost exclusively to being an S.C. State trustee.
Their mission, in the words of Orangeburg native, former S.C. commerce secretary, longtime businessman and current S.C. State board Chairman Charles Way: “To get the ox out of the ditch.”
In addition to securing state fiscal assistance, that meant operating in the black, increasing enrollment and setting the stage for long-needed improvements in infrastructure from buildings to technology. In the two-plus years since the trustees were seated, S.C. State has changed for the better. And the board and its decisions are key reasons why – a fact acknowledged even by many having opposed a de facto state takeover of the university.
The board and interim administration made difficult and unpopular decisions that helped S.C. State remove the specter of losing accreditation. And when Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ probation was lifted, the trustees moved to put in place permanent leadership with one of their own: President James Clark.
The decision allowed a seamless transition and solidified the type of relationship between board and administration needed for a university on the road to better times but not there yet.
In January 2017 when S.C. State leaders returned to the Legislature to make budget requests, they found the view of the university had changed.
“Everybody uses S.C. State as the poster child for failure. I think you all are going to make it the poster child for how to redeem yourself and make it successful,” Rep. Mike Sottile, R-Charleston, said as the officials appeared before the Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“We have done, I feel, a very, very tremendous job of getting this ox out of the ditch but we’ve got a long way to go,” Way told the panel. “This board is dedicated to making South Carolina State not only survive but thrive.”
“You, the Legislature, you put in a board that is dedicated to the success of South Carolina State,” Way said. “This board has brought in people who we feel can make South Carolina State a better place.”
But things could soon change. Per the General Assembly’s action in creating the board, the terms of the seven trustees will end in June 2018. That means an entirely new 13-member board could take over S.C. State at a time when lawmakers and observers believe things are on the right track.
This past week, the General Assembly's College and University Trustee Screening Commission announced that it is seeking letters of intent in order to begin the screening and qualifying process for those interested in filling 12 open board seats. One trustee is appointed by the governor.
The process is the customary one for selecting trustees for state-supported universities and colleges. Qualified candidates go about seeking votes from lawmakers in a competitive process to become trustees. The Senate and House vote in what can be hotly contested races.
As much as competition should produce election of top trustees, history shows that is not always the case at S.C. State and other institutions. In any regard, the process as about to unfold could result in election of an all-new board at a time when making such a radical change seems unwise.
Unknown for now is whether present trustees will seek the seats, but since they are people handpicked for the emergency mission, it is questionable whether many or any will now go politicking to continue serving.
Way said trustees will discuss the situation at an Aug. 31 meeting, but he is worried.
To have an entirely new board take over “would concern me a great deal," he told The Times and Democrat.
"This board has worked together, with the exception of B.R. Skelton, who is new, since May of 2015," Way said. "I think we have come a long, long way. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
The chairman, who was appointed by Sen. Hugh Leatherman, said he plans to discuss the situation with the Senate president pro tem. He should, and with an eye toward securing Leatherman’s support for an extension of the present trustees’ tenure – or at very least to make a change guaranteeing some continuity.
Bowman Sen. John Matthews has a plan with just that in mind. He said there is Senate support for keeping the present board members while adding six trustees over six years.
Though other lawmakers indicate they are not concerned about the board continuity issue, reconsideration should tell them retaining the present trustees or considering a plan such as Matthews’ is the best course.