South Carolina State University's top academic official said President George Cooper told her over the phone Thursday evening that he was removing her from her post, but refused to say why.
The removal of Joyce Blackwell, who has served as vice president for academic affairs since 2009, indicates more trouble at the top on the Orangeburg campus, which has been plagued by problems in recent years.
The reasons for Blackwell's ouster remain unclear. She said she suspects that it involves the process by which some low-performing academic programs were being eliminated, actions on which Cooper was involved or informed, she said.
"I didn't see this coming," Blackwell said. "I know I do my job. I know it's not my performance."
S.C. State spokeswoman Erica Prioleau Taylor said Cooper would not comment on why he removed Blackwell, because it involves a personnel issue. And Blackwell said Cooper wouldn't tell her why he was moving her from the vice president post back to the classroom and cutting her salary from $140,000 to $90,000.
This incident marks the latest trouble at South Carolina's only public historically black university. The school's Board of Trustees fired Cooper in 2010, then rehired him two weeks later when new members joined the board.
Cooper scored the equivalent of a D+ on his two most recent performance evaluations. And this year the state's Legislative Audit Council found the school's James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center suffocating by its own mismanagement, and the faculty voted that it had no confidence in Cooper or his administration.
Thursday was a tough day for Blackwell. She was rushed to the hospital during the day with a medical problem, she said, and then was home in the evening. She noticed that she had a voice-mail message from Cooper, and assumed he was calling to check on her welfare. When she called him back, he demoted her and slashed her salary, she said.
S.C. State has posted a notice on its website stating that it has appointed Rita J. Teal as interim vice president for academic affairs. Teal previously served as the university's executive director of institutional effectiveness. The university will begin a nationwide search for a new vice president, it stated.
According to the state's Commission on Higher Education, Blackwell submitted materials to the commission on Oct. 12 stating that the university would eliminate eight academic programs that were not productive because they had low enrollment or did not graduate an adequate number of students.
Cooper was copied on all correspondence between Blackwell and the commission, documents show.
Blackwell said she subsequently withdrew the request when she realized there might have been mistakes about which programs would be eliminated.
Blackwell said she thought she was following the appropriate processes for eliminating programs. She later heard concerns raised that those programs weren't brought before the school's Board of Trustees. But she wasn't aware that was required, and Cooper didn't tell her it was. "I didn't have a policy to go by," she said.
Board Chairman Jonathan Pinson did not respond to a call or email for comment.
Larry Watson, president of the university's Faculty Senate, said the faculty has had a contentious relationship with Blackwell. And he is concerned about the programs proposed for elimination, especially the master's and bachelor's programs in special education.
There is a big demand for special-education teachers in the state, he said. And a large percentage of students in special-education programs are black males, who could benefit from having some black teachers.
If such programs were not faring well at S.C. State, Watson said, school leaders "should strengthen them, not eliminate them."
He said the relationship between Blackwell and the faculty has improved in recent months, but it remains troubled. For instance, he said, many faculty members think Blackwell talked to them about eliminating the academic programs only after the decisions had been made.
And Watson said he thinks Cooper likely bears some responsibility. "Dr. Blackwell might be the face of this, but I don't think she's the only one culpable here. We need leadership stability."