Ways and Means discussion of SC State put off until Wednesday

    COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- Cold weather and winter storms delayed the Statehouse's opening on Tuesday, which pushed back a discussion on a proviso to temporarily shut down the state's only public historically black university.

    Room 521 of the Blatt Building was packed with members of the committee and South Carolina State University supporters around noon Tuesday ahead of an expected discussion of the university's financial situation and plans to shutter it for a fiscal year.

    The proviso came from a House subcommittee last week that voted 3-1 to shut down SC State, fire the president, board, and most of its employees, as well as cover tuition for students who qualify for transfers.

    The vote was backed up by the full Higher Education Subcommittee a day later when the 8-member group voted 7-1 to pass the proviso.

    "Deep in my heart I do believe closing the school is not the issue. I mean it's not the way to solve the problem. It creates a bigger concern, a bigger issue," said David Woods, a 1988 graduate of SC State.

    Still, Rep. Jim Merrill says the only way to save SC State is to close it temporarily.

    "We are at bankruptcy stage. And we reaches a point where we had no other options. To throw additional dollars at something right now there's no option for payback," he said.

    Other lawmakers are pushing for a less crippling proviso for the university. Rep. Chip Limehouse said his plan would keep the university open, but brings in a financial advisor to manage the college's accounts.

    "It pretty much sidelines the board and the president as an advisor position," he said.

    However, the delayed start of business in Columbia and the long agenda before the group pushed back the discussion for the full Ways and Means Committee until Wednesday.

    Supporters of the university have been vocal since the subcommittee's recommendation last week, but SC State's leadership has yet to act despite having a pair of closed door meetings on the university's finances.

    The message so far has been to "stay the course."

    And the university is not letting a lack of funding prevent it from spreading the message to fight against the proviso.

    University members are using social media to push for support, starting last week with the #KillTheBill hashtag on Twitter and Facebook, and now with short video clips posted to Facebook showing what SC State has done for them.

    Members of the alumni association have been vocal, including Rev. Joe Darby, the Charleston NAACP chapter's vice president. He said during a rally in Columbia on Monday that the state has routinely underfunded SC State by $6 million annually.

    In fact, that claim of underfunding is mentioned in a lawsuit filed on behalf of SC State.

    In Orangeburg Tuesday, members of the law firm who filed suit against the state talked about the legal rationale for the lawsuit.

    The 21-page federal court filing made Friday claims the state created an illegal "separate but equal" system by offering duplicate programs at state universities, which in turn gave students no reason to attend SC State. The suit alleges the state created the financial crisis at SC State because its practices of funding duplicate programs "has maintained South Carolina State University in an unconstitutional segregated state."

    "They're institutions that exist and they want the opportunity to flourish and grow. They're allowed to do so but the federal law and the Supreme Court has stated that with regards to black institutions of higher education, you're allowed to do so as long as don't violate 5 factors of U.S. vs Fordice," said attorney Glenn Walters.

    "If you do so, you will create a de jure segregation system. That's outlawed."

    According to the filing, the duplication of services happened in 1993 when the state converted Coastal Carolina University from a junior college to a comprehensive university, offering the same degrees in business, foreign languages, and education as SC State.

    The duplication of services is also apparent at Clemson, the University of South Carolina, The Citadel, College of Charleston, Francis Marion University, Lander, USC Upstate, and Winthrop, the filing states.

    "We built this black institution but at the same time we built institutions in the same locale offering the same opportunity. And we offered the choice to not attend SC State University and reinforced a two-track system, therefore creating a du jour segregation system," Walters said.

    The filing also cites the downturn in the economy in 2007-08, when the university's share of its operating costs rose to more than 40 percent.

    "The enrollment numbers did not come into existence because the Defendant State of South Carolina ensured that there was no need for non-whites to attend South Carolina State University," according to the lawsuit.

    It was the inability to recruit and maintain a robust student body that prevented the university from remaining fiscally solvent, it states.

    However, a study of the state's budget for the last 10 years shows SC State's financial struggle is not unique. All of the state's public colleges and universities have seen the state's funds dry up during the recession and only trickle back in the past two fiscal years.

    The state considers SC State to be a comprehensive teaching institution, putting it in a category with schools like The Citadel, the College of Charleston, Francis Marion University, and Winthrop University.

    For the 2013-14 fiscal year, SC State was the third-highest funded comprehensive teaching university in the state, behind CofC and Winthrop. Comparing schools on enrollment numbers, SC State is most similar to Francis Marion and The Citadel, who both received less than SC State. In fact, The Citadel only received $9 million from the state that year.

    State financial records show public universities are operating at a fraction of the funds they once received before the recession.

    At The Citadel for the 2007-08 fiscal year, university leaders had more than $16 million from the state to bolster their operations. Now that's just over $9 million.

    By comparison, SC State received more than $24.3 million in 2007-08, a number that has dropped to $12.5 million in 2014. Where it hurts the Orangeburg campus though is enrollment.

    Records show SC State's enrollment has dropped by 40 percent since 2007 while the Citadel's has slowly climbed. It's a similar story of Francis Marion and the College of Charleston, who are both seeing steady albeit small enrollment growth.

    Also, SC State is the only public university in the state to routinely receive $2.5 million directly from lottery funds.

    The state's Commission on Higher Education said Tuesday it had not been served the lawsuit yet, and as a result had no comment on it.

    Students say the segregation of the university also makes them less marketable as they near graduation and prepare to enter the workforce.

    "When you say SC State, you have people that question the relevance and the effectiveness of individuals that graduate from SCSU. So as result of me prepping to graduate in 2016, I felt like 1951. Something had to be done because my future was in jeopardy," said Richard McKnight, a doctoral candidate who also graduated from SC State.

    But one issue that has been expressed several times over the last week is communication. While lawmakers expressed concerns that administrators at SC State were not being forthcoming with their progress in righting the university's coffers, students said they felt they were being kept in the dark as well.

    McKnight said Tuesday that the campus at large was unaware the university's enrollment was dwindling. It wasn't until the House subcommittee's vote to close the school that the student body realized the situation was critical.

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