Jeffrey Collins / AP

Saving State: S. Carolina historically black college struggles to survive

Supporters hope to keep the university alive through government funding, despite resistance from some lawmakers

Like other students at South Carolina State University, junior Reginald Boyd is wondering if he should get out while he can.

It is not hard to see why. In recent weeks, his university — the state’s only public historically black college — has come under fire by state lawmakers calling for the school to close in order to allow it to reorganize.

A few legal fights have broken out. Thomas Elzey, the university’s president, has been fired and is suing for breach of contract. And students are suing the state for failure to desegregate the school.

Meanwhile, the school is broke, facing a $17 million budget shortfall, and lawmakers are unwilling to float more loans. Financial woes are threatening the school’s accreditation after it was put on probation last summer. Enrollment is down, lowering the morale of students, like Boyd, who now find themselves in a very difficult position.

“I’m a junior. So it’s like, if they shut down the school next year, that’s my graduating year. I would be the one suffering the most,” he said.

South Carolina State’s plight is not uncommon among black colleges that are facing challenges of fewer students and shrinking funds. But the turmoil in South Carolina is particularly extreme and poses a threat to a historic institution in the state, and it is triggering political debates over race and education.

About 120 years ago, South Carolina State began as an agricultural and mechanical school focused on educating blacks in poor and rural areas. After World War II, state lawmakers added a graduate and law program at the school “to prevent black students from enrolling in the University of South Carolina’s graduate and legal education programs,” according to the school’s history, which cites the legislature’s separate-but-equal funding strategy.

Over the years, however, course offerings have been rolled back. Full-time student enrollment at the university has dipped about 20 percent in the past decade, according to the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.

‘I’m a junior. So it’s like, if they shut down the school next year, that’s my graduating year. I would be the one suffering the most.’

Reginald Boyd

student, South Carolina State University

This isn’t the first time Boyd, a broadcasting major, said he has heard talk of the school’s closing or losing accreditation. “That’s just not a comfortable feeling,” he said. “I want my education to be secure.”

Even though lawmakers have for now backed off calls to close the school, that does little to ease Boyd’s concerns about his degree’s long-term value after graduation. “That’s one thing that I am tremendously worried about,” he said. Because of all that has happened, he said he lacks confidence about how he, as a South Carolina State graduate, would compare with a University of South Carolina graduate. “Nine times out of 10, then I feel like that person is going to get the job over me,” he said.

He knows the school has a reputation — an unfair one that he has heard state lawmakers perpetuate from the state capital — for taking in students who academically have nowhere else to go. It’s a line that shortchanges students, he said.

“We have options,” Boyd said. “We could have [gone] to any school that we wanted, but we chose to go to South Carolina State. Why put us in the predicament where we’re fighting just to have the same things as a [traditionally white institution]?

“Our needs are not being met,” he said. “Does race play a factor in that? I honestly think it does.”

Dogged by years of persistent debt, SC State found itself in the crosshairs of a state House budget panel in early February when it first proposed closing down the school for two years and firing its trustees and president. Lawmakers’ frustrations over financial mismanagement were felt all the way to the governor’s mansion. “SC State’s leadership has been unable to provide straight answers on the condition of the school’s finances for months, something [Gov. Nikki Haley] finds totally unacceptable,” her spokeswoman Chaney Adams told the AP.

The House panel has since backed off the school closure proposal. Instead, measures seeking to give authority over the school to the state’s financial oversight board and fire the trustees are advancing in the House and Senate. The school’s trustees, whom lawmakers are gunning to dismiss, responded by firing Elzey on March 16, after less than two years on the job.

The trustees have made him a scapegoat, blaming him for “years of inadequate state funding and poor fiscal management,” Elzey claims in a lawsuit against them for breach of contract (PDF).

Academic offerings at SC State have been whittled down, according to Willie B. Owens, a SC State graduate who serves on the Orangeburg County Council. “When you look at the programs that we have lost over the years, we’ve lost law, engineering science, agriculture, library science, nursing. We don’t have anything left but grass to cut and class to cut. That’s all we have left,” he said.

At the heart of the school’s woes, said SC State doctoral student Richard McKnight, is that the state has never made an effort to desegregate the school.

He has joined the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in SC Higher Education, a group of current and former students, to sue the state for financial parity with South Carolina’s traditionally white institutions. They claim the state unnecessarily duplicated programs at the traditionally white schools, keeping SC State “in an unconstitutional segregated state.” The group’s lawsuit (PDF) argues that the present arrangement undermines enrollment numbers, endangering the 43 percent of the SC State budget that comes from tuition.

“I don’t think that race can be ignored,” McKnight said, noting that only 3 percent of students are white. “The vestiges of racism and separatism that we are supposed to be past should remain in the past,” he said. “In this day and age, we don’t need to be segregated. We need to have a more diverse population at the school.”

He believes inequitable funding has shortchanged the school of $100 million over the years. “[SC State students] need to get the federal and state funds we’re entitled to. Those are the funds that we need to receive. I’m not talking about a loan. I’m talking about money we were entitled to that we never received,” he said.

McKnight, who will soon begin his doctoral dissertation in educational administration, has significant personal investment in the school. It’s where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It’s where his parents, siblings, aunts and uncles graduated. He said he knows people who decided not to enroll in the school out of concern about its future. “People are thinking about leaving. Quite naturally, they’re scared their degree is not going to be worth anything,” he said. “The name South Carolina State University, the brand, has been tarnished by the direct and indirect actions of the South Carolina legislature and lawmakers.”

“I think it is their — even if it’s not stated — their intention to destroy the reputation of the school, and by doing that, as a result of that, it will destroy the school so that eventually you won’t have a choice but to close down,” McKnight said.

‘I don’t think that race can be ignored. The vestiges of racism and separatism that we are supposed to be past should remain in the past. In this day and age, we don’t need to be segregated. We need to have a more diverse population at the school.’

Richard McKnight

doctoral student, South Carolina State University

The lack of parity in state funding of black colleges is pervasive in the country, according to Marybeth Gasman, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions. “Public black colleges, from their beginning, were set up unequally, and they have not received equitable funding from the beginning,” she said. “They always received unequitable funding because they were a method of segregation.” 

“There is really no way people can deny the inequities in funding in South Carolina,” she said. “South Carolina State also bears some blame on their part.” The school has suffered from poor leadership for a long time, she said, “but the problems are based on systemic racism — inequities, thinking that institutions don’t deserve funding. There are lots of people who don’t believe in the potential of African-Americans.” 

Lawsuits to gain equitable funding — like the SC State students’ — have been filed around the country, since states often privilege their white schools, she said.

But for Boyd, any progress in getting more money for the university could come too late. He has looked into transferring to another school across the state. “That leaves me to believe that maybe I should transfer. Would that be, you know, a good option?” he wondered.

Even so, he remains attached to his college. “But then I started thinking, ‘Well, I want to fight for my school,’” he said.

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