By Dr. William Small, Jr., former Board Chairman at SCSU and retired educator
Recently I was contacted by Charleston Chronicle staff reporter Barney Blakeney to comment on an article he prepared. The timely, thoughtful and well-written piece entitled “South Carolina State University Needs A Few Good Recruits,” raised the issue of why individuals are not volunteering to serve as trustees at the state’s only publicly supported historically black four year college. Blakeney posed a series of important additional questions regarding the institutional health and political status of South Carolina State University (SCSU) .
The shortage of trustees at SCSU is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. My comments in Mr. Blakeney’s article focused on the grossly unprofessional and prejudicial treatment the trustee board received at the hands of the South Carolina State Legislature. I served as chairman on that same board and have chronicled the pattern of political engagement and professional abuse on other occasions and will not do so here again. However, to understand why there are so few people offering their service to the state, the control dynamic must be appreciated.
By volunteering to serve on the board one is essentially consenting to serve the interests of the legislature of the State of South Carolina. An examination of the historical relationship between the State Legislature and SCSU reveals a pattern of disparate and discriminatory practices designed to leave the university at a disadvantage.
The open hostility and neglect for SCSU on the part of the legislature is compounded by the silence of essential voices that should politically and ethically be a part of the conversation regarding the future of an HBCU. My experiences serving South Carolina and SCSU have convinced me that SCSU will have a materially diminished future unless the conversation expands and those who are publicly too silent and willing “to only muse around the bonfire” speak up. SCSU could become the University of South Carolina at Orangeburg and, in my opinion, folks will inevitably conclude black folks were not capable of managing it. If this happens, the legacy of struggle, sacrifice, tragedy and accomplishment for another storied black institution will be lost in the dust heap of the history of this state and nation.
On that sad and possibly not too distant day, what passes for black political leadership can take our familiar place on the margins of society and raise complaints about exclusion, lack of representation and cultural insensitivity. We know the script because we have played in that movie so many times before. We cannot act as if we have not been here before. We cannot fail to ask and demand an answer to the question–what is the state of South Carolina’s vision for the future of SCSU? We must ask ourselves why that question never gets answered? It is certainly not because the question never gets asked.
The question at hand is not who will volunteer to serve SCSU as a trustee. Rather, what is the state of South Carolina’s plan and commitment to repair SCSU and to have it positioned, for the first time in its history, as an equal, valued and respected member of publicly supported institution in the South Carolina university system. The state legislature cannot answer this question publicly, because the plan is in fact too diabolical to recite publicly Moreover, the legislature has not had to answer this question because, in my opinion, the black elected officials have been too timid to demand an answer. Likewise, the SCSU administrative leadership has failed as well, because it has not put a plan on the table for public discourse and for its public constituencies to support.
The challenge now is to repair SCSU or declare abandonment. The failure to support and strengthen the educational opportunity structure for black people and the general citizenry of this state, by failing to adequately support SCSU is tantamount to adding another brick to the “Corridor of Shame.” The documented pattern of underfunding and educational marginalization of SCSU is little more than a modernized extension of the Orangeburg Massacre in a 2017 costume. It is past time for elected officials and community leaders in South Carolina to discontinue the practice of simply “smacking the tar baby.”
The state NAACP, the Penn Center, the Avery Research Center, the South Carolina Black Legislative Caucus, SCSU National and State Alumni Chapters, the Gullah Geechee Corridor Commission, SCSU employees and the university administrative leadership team, SACS, NAFEO and the Thurgood Marshall organization, The State Commission on Higher Education and black educators everywhere should seek to clarify the reason for the historical mistreatment of SCSU and demand an answer to the issues regarding its repair.
The proposed construction of monuments to Harriet Tubman and Robert Smalls are indeed noble and worthwhile projects. However, it is not a quid pro quo for the sacrifice of South Carolina State University. SCSU, with all of its flaw, continues to stands as a monument reflecting one of the greatest stories ever told about black life locally and nationally. SCSU must be saved to prosper and empowered to tell its own story.
Now that the Legislature has hand picked its SCSU’s board of trustees, those individuals should not be permitted to leave office without a concrete and transparent plan for the future the school. They should also be required to give a public account of the measures they adopt while serving. No board member should be permitted to leave office without a public accounting. Let us all just stop smacking the tar baby.