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Lawmakers Vote to Shutter SC State University to Manage Deficit

 / Updated 
Image: South Carolina State University Exterior
Statues of bulldogs, the mascot of South Carolina State University, line a sidewalk on the campus of the university in Orangeburg, S.C., on July 22, 2014.AP

Nestled between the southern metropolis of Charleston and Columbia, is Orangeburg, South Carolina. The city is a midpoint for many travelers wheeling down Interstate I-26, and it's also home to South Carolina State University, the only public historically black college in South Carolina.

This week, a house subcommittee voted to close the school for two years, starting July 1. Subcommittee members say that closing the school and firing all administrators and athletic programming will create breathing room to decrease a $17.5 million deficit. Under the proposal, SC State would open again for the 2017-2018 school year under new leadership.

The Congressional Black Caucus responded today, outraged that some members of the South Carolina legislature have an interest in closing the university, calling this "overreaching and overreacting to the administrative difficulties being experienced." Chairman G. K. Butterfield, (D-NC) continued, "There are many remedies available to the state’s government without using the nuclear option of closing the institution."

The next steps rest in the hands of a full house and senate vote. Governor Nikki Haley will also need to approve the bill.

If the school closes, 1,000 faculty members and 3,000 students will be greatly affected, changing the trajectory of dreams, now deferred. On Tuesday, senior Aaron Russell, student government president, posted a video on YouTube, saying, “The students are confident in the university and we stand behind our administration.”

Angel Nolan, a 23-year-old senior says, “It’s a very stressful situation, not knowing what’s coming next.” She’s pursuing a business degree and planned on applying to SC State for her master’s in business administration. Her very serious life decision is now on hiatus.

The level of uncertainty is even more distressing for underclassmen. The subcommittee states in their proposal that any student with a grade-point average of 2.5 or above will be able to transfer to another state school or HBCU and could receive state funded assistance.

For 20-year-old sophomore, ShaQuaya Gatttison, her 3.2 GPA doesn’t give her security. “Although the state agrees to pay for me to attend another state school, being that I'm eligible, I'm still yet very concerned,” she says. “What if credits aren't transferred? Moving schools won't change a thing. While agreeing to pay for us to attend another school, why not agree to use that money to help our school instead?”

It’s not just the voices of those who attend the school that want to be heard, alumni are just as concerned. Though they've left the halls of their alma mater, their loyalty remains fierce to a place they once called home.

“If I wasn't offered a full scholarship there, I wouldn't be the engineer I am today. If the doors are shut, I wonder if they will ever open again,” said Richard Washington, 29, and a 2007 graduate of SC State.

Kinika Horry, who graduated in 2002, says that SC State was, “a home away from home.”

“It is a great school; it teaches you values, not just in education. I took business and I would not have known how to dress, what to say or how to wear my hair for an interview. It was just so quick that it all happened and I just think that the students, the alums, the families, the community did not have any time to take it all in and let it sink in and just try and figure out a way,” Horry said.

South Carolina State University’s financial history is littered with complexities beginning in 2009 under former president, George Cooper. In the summer of 2009, Cooper cut 12 jobs, ordered furloughs, travel bans and hiring freezes. He also increased tuition, housing and meal plan fees. In the fall of 2012, a $10 million deficit weighed down any financial progress previously made. And by 2013, the school barreled out of a four year whirlwind of setbacks accentuated with low enrollment and threats of losing accreditation. And if there was any more room for error, a former board of trustee member, Jonathan Pinson, was found guilty of two dozen charges including racketeering in July, 2014.

Thomas Elzey, SC State’s current president who assumed the role in 2013, spoke at a rally to address students and the community on Tuesday. In his speech, Elzey strongly affirmed that the school will stay open. He also responded to the SC Legislative Black Caucus, saying that he won’t step down as president.

Republican Senator Tim Scott, a native son of South Carolina who represents neighboring Berkeley County said, “South Carolina State has served tens of thousands of low-income and minority students for decades, and will continue to do so in the years to come.” He strongly urged the institution to send a proposed plan detailing financial stability, further stating that the thousands of students in Orangeburg are “depending on it.”

On Thursday, the SC State University board of trustees called an emergency meeting, where Elzey sought to clear up rumors that the school had asked for more than $13 million dollars. He also voiced his commitment to taxpayers that he would produce a “sound and fiscally prudent operation.”

The house and ways and means committee plans to meet next week to further discuss next steps for their proposal to shut down the school.

Sherry Thomas, a speech pathologist and 1974 graduate of SC State feels that the community needs to advocate and take control. “Look at the lives that are affected by this,” she said.

Jerry Goldstein Hannah owns “Goldstein’s,” a greek paraphernalia store located across the street from SC State. Hannah says he’s certain that if the school shuts down the town will go with it. He opened “Goldstein’s” in 1983, the same year that he graduated with a master’s in business administration from South Carolina State.

Losing 3,000 students would “cripple” his business, he says. Hannah feels that the panel is overlooking the community. “The committee skipped the process and they said, ‘you are dead and we are planning your funeral, you no longer exist,’” he said.

“I worry about the impact on the community,” Washington says. “Those small businesses that have served thousands of students over the years will lose their main sources of income.”

In 2012, the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce released a study noting that SC State had a $187 million impact on the city.

Alumni and students have circulated several hashtags like #KillTheBillSCState on social media. Willie Owens, a member of the Orangeburg alumni chapter, did not mince words at Tuesday's rally stating that if the bill passes, there would be greater repercussions. “You thought it was hell when Sherman hit Columbia, but just wait," Owens said. "Within a few days, we're going to file a lawsuit of $500 million on behalf of South Carolina State University.”

Thomas says that going to SC State was integral. After integrating Hayward Gibbs Junior High School, and then attending Dreer High School in nearby Columbia, she wanted a black college experience. “SC State has a great speech pathology program and of course the band honey!”

As a supervisor for BabyNet, an early intervention program for newborns and toddlers, Thomas oversees two graduate student interns who attend SC State. One of her interns voiced concern over the news and the threat of losing accreditation. Thomas said she did all she could to soothe her fears, assuring her that the school would not close.

“I hope I didn't lie to her,” Thomas said.

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