The former president of South Carolina’s only public historically-black college, whose resignation three years ago thrust the school’s infighting, corruption, and financial problems into the state spotlight, died unexpectedly Sunday.
Former South Carolina State University president George Cooper died suddenly, according to a release from the school. No cause was given. He was 70 years old.
Cooper was at the helm of SC State from 2008 until 2012, when he resigned three weeks after firing eight high-level school employees. Cooper cited family reasons, although he was also involved in a public struggle with the college’s board of trustees at the time. The next year, he was appointed as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“Under his leadership, he was instrumental in advancing progressive initiatives that served as the framework to strengthen the university and reaffirm its mission as a public land-grant university committed to enhancing the quality of lives for all citizens,” the school’s interim president W. Franklin Evans said in a statement. “He also envisioned the university as a formidable model amongst the best institutions of higher learning in the world.”
Perhaps unfairly, Cooper will always be linked to the school’s most precarious years. SC State’s budget deficit ballooned under his watch, although the board of trustees usually had more control of the process than he did. Various audits found the school often violated good accounting practices to cover its growing financial hole as student enrollment fell.
Cooper hired former State Law Enforcement Division chief Reggie Lloyd just four months before his resignation to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. Lloyd never finished the investigation — turning over his findings to federal and state authorities after Cooper’s resignation. But two trustees and two other school employees were eventually convicted or pleaded guilty for their alleged criminal actions during Cooper’s time in office. Cooper himself was never linked to any criminal wrongdoing and the indictments do not even suggest he was aware of it.
A year after his resignation, the Obama Administration appointed Cooper to his present condition at the White House initiative on HBCUs.
Prior to taking the president’s office in 2008, Cooper spent 17 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, overseeing programs aimed at bolstering historically black land-grant universities and other minority-serving institutions.
Cooper also served on the faculty at Alabama A&M University and Tuskegee University prior to his 2008 election. He was a Florida A&M University graduate.