When torrential rains doused the East Coast earlier this month, many South Carolinians feared it was going to turn some parts of the state into areas like those of the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Mississippi coast a decade ago.
For sure, there was death — some 19 storm-related losses — and widespread property damage. Businesses shut. Schools closed. Amid the storm and the continuing clean up efforts, South Carolina State University (SCSU), the state’s lone historically Black public college, was spared the worst, although many areas nearby were flooded and students and employees from nearby Columbia affected. SCSU closed for the weekend and a day. Then, most of its crew and students were back.
A most fortunate turn of events for an institution that has been otherwise flooded with mostly bad news for several years now: its accreditation in danger, enrollment declining and past due bills in excess of $10 million. Being spared the brunt of this month’s storm was, in contrast, a burst of good news for the university.
“In spite of the rain and things we’ve been going through, we’re still standing,” said veteran SCSU career counselor Rudine Williams. “It’s not about us, it’s about the students we serve here,” said Williams, as she and colleagues resumed work on the university’s ambitious Career Extravaganza that started Monday.
Indeed, surviving storms is what SCSU is about these days. It’s become an all-hands-on-board challenge as the university’s leadership tries to shore up weakened support for it.
“We’re exploring every avenue to achieve savings and bring in money,” says 51-year-old interim SCSU President W. Franklin Evans, the university’s 10th chief executive in just over a decade.
Indeed, SCSU faces troubles of its own, all of which are burning on a short fuse.
It is in its second year of probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SASCOC), its major accrediting agency. With next June set by SACSCOC as the month it will decide the university’s fate on accreditation, Evans says that “everyone” at the student-aid dependent university understands time is running out for it to demonstrate it is directly addressing the five key issues SACSCOC has with the university.
Successfully complying with the SACSCOC criteria would prompt SACS to reaffirm the university’s accreditation for another 10 years. Failing do so by next June will likely result it SCSU’s loss of accreditation, the federal student aid revenue on which the university depends for its livelihood.
“Reaffirmation is the only option,” says Evans.
Everything has been on the table, from enrollment efforts to slashing business expenses to improving physical plant and curriculum ideas, says Evans. He knows he inherited a myriad of challenges and the clock is ticking, he says. He thinks his ideas are good and he needs a vote of confidence and time to work them out, despite the track record of his predecessors and past boards of governors.
On the business side, SCSU has taken a hard look at its energy costs, vendor contracts and outstanding lawsuits to name a few areas getting closer attention. For starters, it took nine buildings on campus out of service so they could be retrofitted with HVAC systems of their own. That should save the university some $1 million on energy and facilities, Evans says.
Facing a mounting pile of debt amid a steadily declining enrollment, the university announced this summer it had plugged another major leak in its financial ship. It had a long-term food services contract with vendor Sodexo renegotiated. The university had been paying for meals based on a guaranteed number of students meal plan, a goal it had not met in years. At the end of fiscal year 2015, it owed Sodexo $6.9 million, excluding interest.
The long-term contract was amended and is based on “actual” meals sold. It is expected to save SCSU an estimated $3.8 million a year in meal costs, based on real time enrollment and subscription to the meal plan, says Edward Patrick, the school’s new vice president for finance and management.
Meanwhile, the university has been working to resolve a number of outstanding legal issues, including settling a lawsuit by former president Thomas Elzey, ousted earlier this year less than a year after he took office by a board of governors which has been mostly replaced by state lawmakers.
The rapid fire pace of cost cutting and belt tightening helped the university end its 2015 fiscal year last June, projecting $3.2 million in consolidated loses compared with consolidated losses in 2014 of $10.3 million, according to Patrick.
Meanwhile, unpaid vendor debt stood at $12.5 million on June 20, 2015, about half of which was due to Sodexo.
On the academic front, SCSU has enhanced its engineering offerings to include a degree program in industrial engineering. It complements SCSU’s degree program in nuclear engineering.
To beef up its recruitment and retention efforts for the fall of 2015, the university used the summer to mail some 3,000 hand-written “comfort” and “welcome” cards to new and returning students. The effort, a first, took an afternoon of more than 50 people, university board members, the university president and other staffers, all welcoming students to the campus and promising a good year.
“We all pulled together,” says Evans, adding the institution got what he and others there considered “good response” to the letter-writing campaign. Among the measures, he says 35 percent of the students who received notes from university board members enrolled for the fall.
Late last month, SCSU reported good news and bad news. It reported actual undergraduate enrollment this fall was 2,438 students versus 2,791 this time a year ago. While down year to year, the final count was 200 students higher than SCSU officials had projected this spring.
SCSU’s final budget for fiscal year 2015-16 was based on the lower enrollment projection. The surprise enrollment boost resulted in $1.1 million than the university had expected. It used the added income to help pay down the more than $13 million in past due bills on its books.
Efforts are already afoot to hold on to the fall enrollment, says Evans who noted SCSU typically loses about 200 students each year between fall and spring enrollment periods. “We’re working on our retention, he says.
Evans, who had briefly served as interim president two years ago, says the university is on target to address SACSCOC’s concerns
“We had to have a balanced budget” for the current fiscal year, says Evans, referring to the SACSCOC list of mandates to keep its accreditation. “That was the first requirement. That was a feather in our cap even though we got additional students for the fall.
“It doesn’t give us more time” to comply with the SACSCOC mandates, says Evans, referring to the combination of positive developments. “It lets us know we are moving in the right direction.”