Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Central State University: What Happened?

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Central State University: What Happened?

Article excerpt

Central State University: What Happened?.

WILBERFORCE, OHIO -- Dr. Herman B. Smith Jr. stepped onto Central State University's campus in early 1995 with hope, ambition and a clear idea of the task he faced.

The school was an estimated $5 million in debt, but a $4 million bailout package from the state would stimulate a resurgence. Besides, Smith had wrestled with similar crises at three historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, and he was hand-picked for his new job by Ohio's governor and its top higher-education official. His brand of medicine would succeed where others failed.

But Central State was a different breed of patient and the extent of its disease had not been diagnosed. The school's accumulated debt when Smith arrived was actually close to $11.6 million, an audit report later revealed. The undetected financial instability sabotaged Smith's rescue effort. After fifteen months, he was fired.

In a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta, Smith said he was "grossly, sadly and unjustifiably mistreated" and called his tenure at CSU "Mission Impossible."

For decades, CSU has lived on a cycle of financial crises and government bailouts -- a cycle that exasperated its supporters and frustrated state officials either unwilling or unable to find a permanent solution. Despite repeated promises to straighten out the school's finances, CSU's trustees and administration continued spending more than the school took in.

The school's current crisis contains a potentially lethal blend of financial and political minefields. The exact amount of its multimillion-dollar debt is unknown. Most of its dormitories have been declared uninhabitable and have been vandalized, apparently by students. The state auditor and inspector general are investigating potential wrongdoing. And some lawmakers have suggested closing or merging the school.

Next Six Months Are Pivotal

The next six months are pivotal as Ohio's elected officials hammer out how much money CSU will receive over the next two years. The school's survival as Ohio's only public HBCU hinges on that funding. But lawmakers say before they make any decisions on the future of CSU, they want to know the answer to one seemingly simple question: What happened at Central State?

That question has no easy answer. CSU's supporters claim the university has endured chronic underfunding because of racial discrimination, and their position is shared by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

But state education officials, the governor and several lawmakers strongly disagree, claiming mismanagement is to blame for Central State's crises.

A review of CSU and state records, as well as interviews with current and former Central State trustees, state higher education officials and auditors, offers glimpses into the reasons for CSU's downward fiscal spiral.

Estimates of CSU's current debt are still climbing. The state auditor's office has told higher-education officials that CSU's debt has probably reached $16 million, according to an Oct. 31 memo that Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Elaine Hairston sent to Gov. George Voinovich.

The school still appears to be spending more than it is bringing in, according to the memo. "This is a crucial matter which will have to be addressed before there is any hope of legislative support for a solution," Hairston told the governor.

Auditor of State James Petro, whose audit showed CSU's debt jumping by $4.3 million in a single year ending June 1995, said more than half of that increase can be blamed on overspending, particularly in the athletic account.

CSU officials now have until mid-January, after requesting and receiving a one-month extension from auditor Petro, to produce a set of auditable financial records for the year ending June 30, 1996, so that a state audit can be completed. That final report, when it comes, could be even more scathing than the 1995 audit, which was released in September. …

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