Fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones know what a big deal it is when someone is resurrected from the dead. Life is a precious thing, and death is final — except in the case of Jon Snow. But sometimes institutions can die — businesses, nonprofits, newspapers, schools. So there is reason to celebrate when a venerated historic black university with several thousand alumni is rescued from the brink of almost certain death. I’m talking about S.C. State University and its resurrection. Recently, it was announced that the long-struggling state school had regained its accreditation and was taken off probation and life support.
Despite the series of articles detailing the trouble at S.C. State, many do not realize how close the historic institution actually came to losing its accreditation and closing its doors. For several years, S.C. State had been on probation due to deteriorating finances, high attrition rates, and declining enrollment. After a series of scandals rocked the university, including the indictment of the former board chair, the firing of a university president, and an audit showing a budget deficit of several million dollars, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed the school on probation in 2013. SACS also gave the school a list of items the university had to successfully fulfill within three years to prevent a loss of accreditation, which is the closest thing to a death sentence for a university.
Once a school loses its accreditation, the federal government will no longer issue student loans to its students. Because over 85 percent of S.C. State students receive some level of federal financial aid, the loss of accreditation would have meant the loss of nearly all its students. While such a loss of accreditation could be appealed, such appeals are lengthy and seldom granted.
One of the biggest items on the SACS’ to-do list was eliminating the enormous debt on the Orangeburg university’s balance sheet. Once the drastic nature of the school’s finances became known, the General Assembly gave SCSU a loan of over $19 million to pay its bills. Because those funds were loans they showed up as a liability on S.C. State’s balance sheet. The presence of such debt, as an indicator of poor financial health, was a major hurdle towards the university’s ability to crawl out of probationary status.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly voted to forgive $12 million of the loan that it had given to S.C. State. By forgiving a portion of the debt rather than insisting on all of it to be paid over time, the legislature allowed the historic black university to take its largest liability off its balance sheet and therefore cross off one of the most formidable challenges in meeting the SACS’ list of requirements.
The legislature also appointed a brand new board of trustees who are well respected in South Carolina’s business community. S.C. State then declared financial exigency, a declaration which meant that it had to take drastic measures to save itself. This action allowed the university to terminate tenured professors who were otherwise untouchable.
By trimming the workforce by over 200 employees, S.C. State trimmed costs to a level that was once again manageable. This past fiscal year, the university’s budget was not only balanced, but showed a surplus for the first time in several years.
The actions of the General Assembly, and by extension the new board of trustees, has had a dramatic effect on the university’s bottom line. In fact, they were the main reasons S.C. State regained accreditation. Saving the university was a hugely significant accomplishment for our state, and it is something for which we should all be proud. It shows that when the stakes are high enough, our elected leaders have the capacity to do great things.