South Carolina State University President Thomas Elzey’s motivation for pursuing a finance career was simple and personal: Growing up on the south side of Chicago, he didn’t have any money.
Elzey, 59, will need those financial skills when he takes the reins at the state’s only public historically black university June 15 to help a school that is struggling, mostly due to declining enrollment. He also could face challenges from the divided board that voted, by narrow margins, to hire him and offer him a four-year contract with the highest salary of any president in the school’s history.
Under the contract, which Elzey signed last week, he will receive a $330,000 annual compensation package for the next four years. That includes a $280,000 salary, with $170,000 of that coming from the state and $110,000 from the university’s foundation; and a $50,000 deferred annuity, contingent on a satisfactory performance evaluation.
Elzey, executive vice president for finance, administration and operations at The Citadel, said he’s ready to start jumping S.C. State’s financial hurdles. He’s been taking on similar challenges his entire life.
He grew up in Chicago, raised by his grandparents who had little money but strong Christian values.
When he was 11 years old, he got a job delivering newspapers.
“I treated my customers right,” he said. “I put the papers where they wanted them and I said, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ ”
At Christmas time, he included cards with the papers, giving customers an easy way to give him tips. He brought in $50. “That was a lot in those days,” he said.
He paid for college by landing scholarships, work-study jobs and being an adviser in the dorms for free room and board.
Elzey was a whiz kid who, as a senior at Bradley University, got a job as an economist in the Department of Urban Development in Peoria, Ill. His senior thesis was a cost-benefit analysis of a new convention center in that city.
Elzey had held several finance-related jobs when he was offered a position at Howard University, eventually becoming senior vice president and chief financial officer. He helped turn around a financially struggling hospital and upgrade classroom technology.
Citadel President Lt. Gen. John Rosa said he thinks Elzey will “bring to S.C. State the leadership and vision he provided so admirably to The Citadel.”
S.C. State board Chairman Walter Tobin said he’s certain those experiences make Elzey the right person to lead the university. And he’s pleased the majority of the board approved a four-year contract.
“South Carolina State University has been void of visionary, strong leadership for a long time,” Tobin said. “He can run an institution. And he can create financial stability.”
Tobin is one four trustees who will leave the board at the end of June, after the General Assembly voted to replace incumbents, citing problems with contentious relationships among members of its board.
The school also has faced legal problems, with its former board chairman and police chief charged in an illegal kickback scheme involving the university.
Tobin, a graduate of S.C. State, said he has served on the board for five years. “I got on this board to make a contribution,” he said.
He thinks hiring Elzey is his big contribution to the school.
Board member John Corbitt, who voted against hiring Elzey and the contract offered to him, said, “I have nothing against Mr. Elzey. It’s not personal.”
But he wasn’t certain all aspects of the contract are legal. S.C. State’s previous presidents have “served at the will of the board,” Corbitt said, and have not had multiyear contracts. And he wanted to see a letter from the school’s foundation clarifying its portion of Elzey’s salary and benefits. But he never got it.
He knows very little about Elzey, except that he did a good job at The Citadel, Corbitt said. And Elzey has no track record as a university president.
Elzey said he was especially interested in the job because S.C. State is a historically black university. “I recognize that institutions like South Carolina State University can be the catalyst for a young African-American person to move from one socioeconomic level to the next.”
He also believes many students who attend such schools lack confidence in their academic abilities and their ability to function well in a university environment. “An HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) nurtures that confidence,” he said. And he wanted to be part of that.
His wife, Monedia, a psychotherapist, said people who know her husband wouldn’t be surprised that he would take on the challenge of running S.C. State. “He’s always done well to bring about positive change. That’s where he shines,” she said, “so this job is perfect.”
And after living in several large cities, Monedia Elzey, who grew up in Woodstock, Va., is ready to again live in a small, Southern town. What’s important about a place is being surrounded by good people, and she thinks she will find that in Orangeburg.
Thomas Elzey said his only regret about the job is that there isn’t a house for the president on the campus. He would like to live on campus to be more engaged in the university.
And he makes it clear that he’s not only about business but also has a romantic side. When he and Monedia decided to get married in Hawaii 29 years ago, he made all the arrangements. That was tough back then without the Internet, he said. “Maybe I should have gone into the wedding business.”