S.C. State trustees put Elzey on leave

ORANGEBURG — The South Carolina State Board of Trustees placed embattled university President Thomas Elzey on administrative leave Monday after meeting behind closed door for three hours.

Six of the school’s 10 trustees participated in the vote, which was unanimous. Chairman William Small Jr. voted by phone. Trustees named Interim Provost W. Franklin Evans the acting S.C. State president. Evans issued a written statement after the meeting, saying that under his leadership, the university will continue to move forward.

“These are critical times at SC State; therefore, it is imperative that we remain focused on the matters most important to the institution’s short- and long-term sustainability,” Evans said. “I will serve, at the direction of the Board of Trustees, with pride, integrity and transparency, for as long as I am called upon.”

Elzey declined to comment before leaving the building. It was unclear if he would still be paid while on leave. Trustee Ronald Henegan said the board would later issue a statement with details concerning Elzey’s leave.

“The decision we made here today was made in the interest of this university, so this university can continue to move forward in a very positive and definite way” Henegan said after the meeting. “And we think the decisions we made here today are sound, and we stand behind them.”

Elzey, who came to S.C. State from The Citadel, is paid $280,000 a year: $170,000 from the state and $110,000 from the university’s foundation. Under his contract, which runs through June 2017, he also receives a $50,000 deferred annuity, contingent on a satisfactory performance evaluation. According to the contract, if the Board of Trustees terminates Elzey “without just cause,” he still receives the state-funded salary portion of the contract. Attorney Charlie Condon said “just cause” depends on the board’s view.

“Normally, administrative leave is a step that’s taken when one is contemplating termination for cause,” Condon said. “They’re taking this interim step perhaps to weigh their options.”

Less than two weeks ago, on Feb. 12, the board announced it would honor its contract with Elzey. But Elzey’s support eroded fast last week.

It started when two House panels advanced a measure that called for the closure of S.C. State for at least three semesters. That measure was tabled on Wednesday in favor of one that called for the removal of the board and the firing of Elzey.

The Legislative Black Caucus also voted no-confidence in Elzey’s leadership, and several members called for him to step down on Feb. 11. Then, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and his wife, both of whom graduated from S.C. State, called for the board’s and Elzey’s ouster on Wednesday.

By Thursday, the Senate introduced a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, that called for firing the board. That bill is up for discussion on Tuesday.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors — Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins — said the measure will now likely be pushed through quickly, because he doubts his colleagues in the Senate would be in favor of the school’s current board picking the university’s next leader.

“I think this bill is going to be fast-tracked even more so now,” Jackson said.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said Monday’s decision by the board would also not deter the House from moving forth with his proposal introduced last week that also calls for the replacement of S.C. State’s board with members of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.

Under Merrill’s proposal, acting trustees would “remove” Elzey, “if it is determined that would be in the best interest of the university” and hire an interim president to lead the school. The board would be reconstituted once the school is solvent.

“I think it’s pretty clear that everybody has come to the realization that drastic action needs to be taken,” Merrill said Monday. “That is, I guess, advancement.”

But keeping the current board will likely not be enough, Merrill said, because someone has to be willing to come in and be the “bad guy,” and make difficult and unpopular decisions to get the university back on track. Enrollment at the state’s only public historically black university has been declining sharply in recent years, falling below 3,000 students.

With less tuition being paid, the university has been staying afloat though emergency loans and bailouts from the state totaling $18 million above its operating budget.

Its debt is estimated at $70 million.

“I don’t know that there is a majority of current administrators or board members who are willing to play that role, because it hasn’t been done until now,” Merrill added. “Just rearranging the deck chairs is not what the state needs right now. It’s going to take somebody who is not looking to be everybody’s friend.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.