MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - (Note: An earlier version of this column INCORRECTLY said that Alabama State University had been placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS has placed ASU on warning status, and extended that warning in December. I apologize to readers and to ASU for the error. An updated version of the column is below.)
[DOCUMENT: ASU response letter to original Hare column]
Things are so botched up at South Carolina State University that a committee of the S.C. Legislature has proposed closing it, firing everybody and starting all over in two years.
Few people expect the proposal to become a reality, but it at least should get the attention of officials at the state's flagship historically black college, which is mired in budget problems, faced with accreditation issues, and struggling with academic woes.
Hmm. A state's flagship HBCU, mired in budget problems, faced with accreditation issues, and struggling with academic issues. Why does that sound familiar?
Here in Alabama we have Alabama State University, the state's leading historically black college. Like S.C. State, ASU has serious budget issues. Like S.C. State, ASU faces problems with accreditation, having been given a warning from its accreditation agency and later having that warning extended. And like S.C. State, ASU is struggling to improve its academic standing.
Let me pause right here to make an unequivocal statement: I strongly believe that at this juncture it would be foolish for the S.C. Legislature (which I once covered as a young reporter) to close S.C. State, even temporarily.
I also believe that while ASU mirrors some of the issues at S.C. State, it is not nearly as far down the road in its budget problems as its South Carolina counterpart. So it would be even more premature to seriously discuss closure here.
But as a warning to "get your house in order," the proposal by the S.C. legislative committee should be effective and, frankly, is understandable.
That's especially true because it is not the only such warning sign that state government officials in South Carolina are growing increasingly irritated over management at S.C. State.
For instance, the Legislative Black Caucus has gone on record calling for the ouster of the S.C. State president, and another House proposal calls for the S.C. State board to be stripped of its power and control given to the state Budget and Control Board.
While the closure proposal goes too far, South Carolina legislators and other state government officials are right to be concerned.
A story in The State newspaper recently pointed out that S.C. State is deeply in debt and owes millions in back payments to vendors. It also noted that the university accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, has placed S.C. State on probation, and that the university graduates just 14 percent of its students.
Compare that to ASU, which has seen its bond rating dropped by its rating agency because of financial problems, and which operates under a SACS warning for its fiscal woes.
SACS also has denied approval of two new programs at ASU, citing largely financial but also academic problems. Those include such issues as not assigning "responsibility for program coordination, as well as for curriculum development and review, to persons academically qualified in the field" and calling for the university to have "competent faculty members qualified to accomplish the mission and goals of the institution."
In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics shows ASU's four-year graduation rate is just 9 percent and even after six years, only 25 percent of ASU students graduate. In fairness, I should point out that several other public colleges in Alabama have only marginally better graduation rates. (S.C. State's comparable numbers are 14 percent and 36 percent, according to the NCES website.)
Over the years, I recall hearing several people say of ASU something like: "We ought to just close the place and start over." I've never really taken such comments literally; I've mostly ignored them, writing them off as just expressions of frustration.
But that is pretty much what some legislators in South Carolina are proposing for S.C. State. The legislation which passed out of committee would fire the administration and board, while other employees would have to reapply for their jobs when the school is reopened. Students who maintain a 2.5 GPA could attend any other public college. Athletics also would be suspended.
Again, I don't believe that is going to happen in South Carolina, and it should not get serious consideration in Alabama, either.
But it does show what could happen a few years down the road if ASU does not get its financial house in order and perhaps most important, drastically improve its four-year and six-year graduations rates, which are indefensible.
For now, I don't believe anyone would seriously consider drastic proposals to close ASU or strip the board of its power. But ASU officials should take heed of what is happening in South Carolina as legislators and others get increasingly frustrated with S.C. State's chronic fiscal and academic issues.
If such issues are not dealt with here by ASU officials in the near future, at some point I would not put it past some Alabama legislators to try to go down a similar road as their counterparts in South Carolina.