South Carolina State U.'s Board Rehires the President It Ousted 2 Weeks Ago

July 01, 2010

George E. Cooper's stint as South Carolina State University's ex-president lasted two weeks, ending on Thursday when the university's governing board reinstated him after his June 15 ouster, also by the board.

The reversal was possible because of turnover among trustees. In June the board had voted 7 to 4 to not renew Mr. Cooper's contract, essentially firing him. But the terms of two trustees who voted for the firing expired this week. They were replaced on Thursday by two new trustees, and the newly constituted board voted 8 to 5 to bring back the president.

Mr. Cooper said in an interview that he was optimistic that he and the board could move quickly past their recent split and that the university's plans would not be disrupted.

"I'm honored to be back at the university," said Mr. Cooper, who said he spent the last two weeks relaxing.

South Carolina's legislature elects trustees at South Carolina State, a historically black institution in Orangeburg. Mr. Cooper had been on the job for just two years before his brief removal. His predecessor was also fired, in a messy split that led to a lawsuit. Few other high-level administrators have served for more than a few years at the university recently.

The turbulence at the top at South Carolina State is due at least partially to severe financial pressure. The state has slashed its contribution by a crippling 44 percent over the last year. Enrollment has also dropped, and the university, with endowment funds of only $3.5-million, has used furloughs, a hiring freeze, job eliminations, and other spending trims to stay afloat.

The board has struggled to adjust to a deeply altered relationship with the state, which appears unlikely to return to its generous funding levels of the past. Trustees have become more engaged with the university's management and finances, and that has obviously contributed to tension with campus leaders.

Attention to Fund Raising

South Carolina State's challenges are familiar to other historically black colleges. Most lack the array of substantial revenue streams available to their peers among white-majority colleges, particularly endowment funds and private donations. For example, a recent report says, in 2006 historically black colleges in North Carolina had one-eighth the endowment money, on a per-student basis, of other colleges.

During a retreat held in Charleston, S.C., earlier this week, South Carolina State's trustees discussed how to develop a culture of fund raising and development. Several stressed the need for stable leadership, which would enable a capital campaign—a new approach for the university.

Jonathan N. Pinson, the board's chairman, said during the retreat that the topic of fund raising often "got lost in our board meetings." That can't happen in the future, he said, as private support is critical to the university's survival.

While enrollment has dipped at South Carolina State, to about 4,250, the university's leaders make a strong case for its continued relevance. The institution is the only public historically black university in South Carolina, a state where blacks make up almost a third of the total population. The relatively affordable tuition of a public university is a draw for lower-income students, and about 90 percent of students at South Carolina State receive financial aid.

The university also played a high-profile and tragic role in the civil-rights movement. In 1968, students and other demonstrators gathered on the campus to protest an all-white bowling alley in Orangeburg. Police fired into the crowd, killing three people, including two university students, and injuring 27.

"Our mission is compelling," said Mr. Cooper. "If we did not exist, where would students go?"