COLUMBIA — A second House panel on Wednesday endorsed a temporary shutdown of South Carolina State University, just hours after the Legislature’s Black Caucus took a no-confidence vote on the school’s president and, afterward, called on him to resign.
Thomas Elzey, the head of the state’s only public historically black college, said he had no intention of stepping down. Elzey said he briefed lawmakers on his rescue plan several weeks ago and invited them to visit the Orangeburg campus and learn firsthand what is going on at the roughly 3,000-student school. None of them have taken him up on the invitation, he said.
Instead, lawmakers have proposed shuttering the school for three semesters and laying off its faculty and staff.
“We were shocked. All of these actions are detrimental to the school,” Elzey told The Post and Courier. “This kind of stuff, where we’re in the press nationally about shutting us down, has hurt our recruitment tremendously. Why is this necessary at this time?”
Before becoming S.C. State University president about a year and a half ago, Elzey was executive vice president for Finance, Administration and Operations at The Citadel.
Elzey and many lawmakers were taken by surprise when the House Ways and Means Higher Education Subcommittee voted, 3-1, Tuesday to close S.C. State for up to two years because of mounting debts rather than continue loaning or giving the school millions of dollars to pay its bills and make payroll. Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said Elzey was planning to ask for another $50 million over several years in addition to the $18 million the state already has given the school above its operating budget.
Merrill said something had to be done to stop the debt from spiraling higher, leading to Tuesday’s subcommittee vote, which succeeded in getting everyone focused on the leadership issues at the school.
“Clearly the debt is what’s holding back S.C. State,” said Merrill, adding Elzey failed to show a willingness to take the necessary actions to solve the university’s debts, estimated to be at least $70 million.
Late Wednesday, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, issued a statement supporting efforts to regain control over S.C. State’s finances.
“Based upon the school’s inability to establish financial solvency, it is apparent that current leadership is incapable of bringing about the necessary change this situation demands,” Lucas said. “I stand by the efforts of the Ways and Means Subcommittee as they continue to address this very important and sensitive issue.”
The S.C. State University Board of Trustees had been scheduled to hear a plan Thursday for balancing this year’s budget by cutting faculty and staff and several majors that have seen steep declines in enrollment, including art education, social studies and business education. The trustees announced late Wednesday that they would be holding an emergency meeting Thursday.
Rep. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown, chairman of the Black Caucus, said Elzey should have realized the committee was serious about seeing changes at the school and that the no-confidence vote is an attempt to keep the school from being closed.
“The vote of no confidence is there because of what took place over the last several months,” Anderson said. “And we feel like leadership plays a very important role in the success of any situation, especially the university.”
Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, said the Black Caucus vote was due to the university’s lack of communication with the General Assembly. He said the caucus believes Elzey is not the person who can lead S.C. State forward.
“We feel that his leadership has damaged ... South Carolina State,” King said. “That’s why we’re taking this drastic move and asking him to step aside from being the president of South Carolina State.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the school’s most prominent alumni, has been among those who see an ongoing “lack of visionary leadership” at the school, he told The Post and Courier in December. However, after the Black Caucus vote Wednesday, he declined to comment.
S.C. State has faced ongoing financial problems in the wake of past corruption convictions of its board chairman and others, allegations of mismanagement involving millions of dollars, the firing of presidents and top administrators and other serious problems. Recently, Elzey has asked the state for millions to help pay its immediate debts.
The university’s additional requests precipitated the Ways and Means Higher Education and Technical Colleges Subcommittee proposal, which was introduced on Tuesday and voted on by the panel. It calls for suspending all S.C. State operations and programs as of July 1 through the 2015-16 school year. The school would be able to resume classes in January 2017, at the earliest, with new faculty and leadership, said Merrill, subcommittee chairman.
Under the plan to close the school temporarily, Elzey and the school’s current Board of Trustees would be terminated, along with the entire faculty and staff. The state would pay for students with a grade-point average of 2.5 or higher to attend other state universities. Where those students would go and what would happen to those with lower GPAs remained unclear. Merrill said Tuesday the language of the proposal could be modified. The goal would be to use the savings to repay the school’s mounting debt.
The proposal advanced from the Ways and Means Proviso Subcommittee on Wednesday on a 7-1 vote, with Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, dissenting. Limehouse said he didn’t vote for the measure because he has a “better plan” that he’ll introduce next week that calls for the appointment of a trustee that would take over the school.
“Shutting down the school is not a good plan,” Limehouse said, adding he’s for “open-heart surgery, not a lobotomy” of the university.
The plan to shutter the state’s only public historically black college for three semesters drew quick ire from black leaders.
“It’s a 21st-century plantation plan. If the plantation isn’t profitable, close the plantation and ship off the slaves,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, a leader in the AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston NAACP. He dubbed the plan by white lawmakers “bigoted and insulting.”
If the plan became reality, the state could expect a massive lawsuit because the school, which serves many disadvantaged black students, never has been funded adequately by the state, Darby said. He declined to comment on Elzey’s performance as president.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, voted against the proposal.
Amanda Kerr contributed to this story.
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