Bolton: Legislature must change its tactics, tune to save SC State University

CAN LAWMAKERS’ plan to oust the S.C. State University board and replace it with a temporary panel that would appoint a new president save the day?

Or is it simply, to paraphrase some old lyrics, the same song, different verse, a little bit louder and a little bit worse? Or simply more of the same?

Yes, trustees and presidents who have led S.C. State over the years shoulder much of the blame for the university’s fiscal woes. But let’s not forget who chose those board members decade after decade: legislators, the same people now posing as the saviors with the wisdom to anoint a dream team to oversee the Orangeburg college’s restoration.

Although the House and Senate proposals are a departure from convention, in the end, the concept is the same: Legislators will choose a board, which will choose a president, to lead S.C. State.

But there has to be more to it than that. It’s already been proven that simply throwing the rascals out isn’t the answer.

Remember a few years ago, when some legislators concerned about severe debt, declining enrollment and leadership quarrels at S.C. State sought to jettison the entire board? While it didn’t come all at once, lawmakers would bring significant change to the board, beginning in 2013 with the ouster of four board members.

With three board members having resigned — two late last year and a third last month — there are only 10 sitting members at the moment. Of those, all but three were elected or appointed after 2012; six — a majority — have been on the board less than two years.

Despite the changes to the board, the university is under tremendous scrutiny as its enrollment has declined even more, its finances have taken a nosedive, its debt has ballooned and its accreditation has become threatened.

Matters are so grave that lawmakers and even some key S.C. State supporters have coalesced around the notion of scrapping the board and starting all over again.

But legislators remain the one constant. Some of the same lawmakers who have been choosing S.C. State board members for years are still in the Legislature. If those leaders want real change, they themselves must change, first by committing to remain engaged and supportive, which hasn’t always been the case.

If nothing else, the crisis at S.C. State has awakened a Legislature that had been derelict in its oversight of this taxpayer-owned university.

But this grand plan to cure what ails S.C. State will only be another board change that leads nowhere if lawmakers don’t give the temporary panel clear directives and necessary resources.

Frankly, I think the pending change is ill-timed with a pivotal accreditation visit looming in June. It seems to me that if everyone got into a room — the current S.C. State board, key lawmakers, the governor and expert advisers — they could turn this thing around in the short term, starting with balancing the budget and collaborating to position the college to retain its accreditation in June, which is key to it being a viable institution of higher education.

But if lawmakers insist on moving ahead, here are a few things they should do:

• Choose a competent, independent board that has the best interests of taxpayers and S.C. State at heart. The Senate plan calls for Senate and House leaders and the governor to appoint experts from various fields to a temporary board, while the House would place the Budget and Control Board in control. The Budget and Control Board proposal is a no-no; the board is comprised of politicians who don’t know anything about running a college, an arrangement that could hurt S.C. State’s accreditation.

• Give the new board a clear understanding of what is expected: Is it to save S.C. State and put it on a track to be relevant for generations to come? Or is it to cut to the bone and simply balance the budget? Those are two different things.

• Provide whatever help is needed to save the university’s accreditation.

• Direct the board and new president to give S.C. State a top-to-bottom review to determine what direction the college needs to go in and what, if any, changes need to be made to position itself for the future. Should its mission be tweaked or changed?

• Forgive the $18 million in loans extended to S.C. State; while it has received all of a $6 million loan, a $12 million package calls for the money to be released over a period of years. Come on; this is a state-owned college. Make this an allocation.

Why send a new board to Orangeburg to fix a financially struggling public university that’s saddled with debt from the state that owns the college?

Bottom line: If we’re going to save S.C. State, we’ve got to change our usual tactics — and our tune.

Reach Mr. Bolton

at (803) 771-8631 or