Gov. Haley signs bill to fire SC State Board of Trustees

Haley signing bill Thursday afternoon. (Source: Governor's office)
Haley signing bill Thursday afternoon. (Source: Governor's office)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - After three months of drama, lawmakers and the governor fired the trustees at South Carolina State University on Thursday.

The House and Senate each approved a compromise bill to name a new Board of Trustees and Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill hours later.

While the law gives seven Republicans a week to name their new trustees, Haley wasted no time and picked Milton Irvin, the chairman of New York investment bank CastleOak Securities as her trustee. She said he is ready to roll up his sleeves and get the university going in the right direction.

The other officials who will name one new trustee each are Superintendent Molly Spearman, Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Courson, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, and Rep. Jim Merrill, Ways and Means' higher education subcommittee chairman.

Declining enrollment at SC State and an unwillingness to reduce spending have created a growing debt that turned into a crisis this year. House members surprised everyone in February with a proposal to close the university entirely for a year so officials couldn't straighten out its finances.

But after getting everyone's attention, lawmakers quickly backtracked a little. Proposals were made to fire the trustees and name a new board. They passed both chambers twice with just one dissenting vote, although the House and Senate disagreed for months over who should get to appoint the new board.

Those new trustees will walk into a mess. South Carolina's only historically black public university expects to be $23.5 million in debt by the summer. The power company in Orangeburg has threatened to shut off the lights because they haven't paid their bills on time. The school also owes the state at least $6 million in loans.

The president hired to straighten out the finances lasted less than two years. Thomas Elzey sued the school to try to prevent his firing and is now continuing the suit for wrongful termination.

SC State had nearly 5,000 students in 2007. Fewer than 3,000 students attended this school year, and acting president W. Franklin Evans expects just 2,650 students this fall.

Looming over it all is the university's accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SC State was put on probation last year. A team came to campus last month and will decide by June if the university can keep its accreditation.

If the university loses its accreditation, students would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid and the school would almost certainly have to close.

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