ORANGEBURG - When Thomas Elzey became president of South Carolina State University a year ago, he knew he had taken on a challenge at the state's only public, historically black university. At the time, he didn't realize just how big a challenge.
"I knew there was trouble ahead," he said in an interview last week with The Associated Press. "I did not know it was going to be as deep of a problem - as deep of a hole as it turned out to be."
After years of infighting among members of the university's board and administration, Elzey found himself faced with declining enrollment and a budget deficit that forced the school to ask for almost $14 million from the state. The university received $6 million for its most pressing bills.
And, after earlier warnings, the university this year was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which raised concerns about administration and finances.
Then, earlier this month, former board of trustees chairman Jonathan Pinson was convicted in federal court of more than two dozen charges, including using his influence to make money off a homecoming concert and to try to get the university to buy land from a Florida developer.
"It's almost like we have been in a freefall and we're trying to pull the lever back and level out," said Elzey, who came to the university after serving as a vice president at The Citadel. "What came down on this university was akin to a perfect storm."
He said amid internal feuding, the school wasn't prepared for the Great Recession.
"Most universities took proactive steps around the economic downturn to prepare themselves for reduction in students and a reduction in funding. It was not done here," he said. "Most schools also enhance more efficient operational processes. It was not done here."
Ninety percent of the university's students depend on federal aid, which also took a hit during the recession, he said.
"Most other colleges and universities have endowments and resources they can fall back on. This one doesn't," Elzey added. "We had the downturn, we had no managerial reaction to that and we had federal and state funds that were dropping."
Elzey feels things are now beginning to level off. The school, which ran a deficit last year, this month passed an $80 million balanced budget that, among other things, trims administrative jobs, eliminates some coaching positions and the women's golf team, includes a modest tuition increase and requires a week's furlough for university workers.
Elzey has worked to keep money flowing to the classrooms. "We are making sure we adhere to and maintain the academic quality and standards," he said.
The university has also developed a five-year plan to bring its enrollment of about 3,500 up to 4,200 by 2018.
Elzey also hopes that, within the next year or so, a blueprint can be made for a fund drive to increase the university's paltry $6.5 million endowment. A school the size of S.C. State should have an endowment of between $75 and $100 million, Elzey said.
Elzey's work has won support. He was elected president in April of 2013 by a single vote of the board of trustees. Last month, by an 8-1 vote, he received a satisfactory evaluation from the board which voted him a $50,000 bonus from a school foundation.
The biggest challenge, Elzey said, has been changing the institutional thinking.
"There has been a lot of infighting. I won't deny that," he said. "There have been individuals who have chosen to take a position that their own personal agenda outweighs the university agenda. I was discouraged when I saw we had so many people inside attempting to hold us back."
But then, he added, "we overcame that. Let's just say that out of a 24-hour day, I might have been discouraged for five minutes."