- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday called on the state’s top accountant to apologize to the students and alumni of South Carolina State University for offensive comments, but Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom called it a political request that distracts from the need to fix the school’s finances.

Eckstrom’s comments came as the Budget and Control Board, on which he sits, considered lending the school $6 million to help pay bills that began piling up in October. The school had sought a $13.6 million direct payment. Other board members suggested one way the state’s only public historically black university can help make up the difference is by aggressively collecting on its student debt.

“It’s servicing a student body that doesn’t have the ability to bail the university out. These are not kids coming from wealthy parents. These are kids that are going there because they can’t get into these other schools,” Eckstrom said, prompting loud groans from a standing-room-only crowd of SC State supporters.

“They can’t afford it,” he said as the objections grew louder. He then asked the crowd, “So what we’re saying is the university can bail itself out?”

The board voted 3-1 to give the school a $6 million loan, with Eckstrom abstaining. He said he couldn’t support the loan, because it doesn’t solve the problem, but didn’t want to vote against the school.

Criticism from both the Legislative Black Caucus and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a caucus member, focused on Eckstrom saying SC State’s students can’t go elsewhere.

It “maligns an entire student population,” the caucus said in a statement. “South Carolina State University has a rich heritage and tradition of attracting students from all socio-economic levels and providing quality higher education which is the key to her longevity.”

Eckstrom, a Republican seeking re-election, later said he was referring to the financial realities facing many students.

Critics also took issue with his comments on the university’s historic role.

“I’m committed to the university because it’s a university, not because it’s a historically black university. I think the sooner this state gets away from the concept of talking about historically black universities is a step forward for this state,” he said. “We no longer talk about historically white universities. I think we need to deal with the issues of funding needs at South Carolina State because it’s an institution of higher learning.”

The caucus said Eckstrom needs to research why historically black universities exist.

Rutherford, D-Columbia, said the comments are “uninformed, ignorant, and embarrassing,” and insult the names of the school’s prominent alumni.

“Those comments demonstrated a severe lack of understanding of our only public, historically black college in South Carolina,” Rutherford said.

After the meeting, university President Thomas Elzey called Eckstrom a great supporter of the school whose comments were misunderstood.

“We have a large number of students who attend our university who have great needs,” Elzey said. “It’s not realistic to think students who have financial challenges are suddenly going to have money they’re going to pay back.”

The school may produce some revenue through improved debt collection, but not any sizable amount, he said.

Prominent alumni include U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s only Democratic congressman and namesake of the school’s transportation center.

He said Eckstrom’s comments show the state is regressing in many ways. Clyburn said he and his wife and thousands of other black South Carolinians went to SC State because “that is where we wanted to go.”

“Of course, it was the only institution of higher education in South Carolina that would accept us.”

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