COLUMBIA — The potential exit of embattled South Carolina State University President Thomas Elzey has been in the making since his arrival, former board members said, since the decision to hire him was divisive from the start.
Elzey, who has led the state’s only historically black university for less than two years. Elzey was placed on administrative leave on Monday. The board has said it will announce Wednesday his employment status.
The trustees, too, are under fire, with the Legislature blaming them and Elzey for mismanagement that has left the school deeply in debt and facing severe cutbacks in programs and faculty.
Last week, trustees accused the General Assembly of failing to provide adequate funding, while making them take the blame.
“That’s the only problem we have, it’s more money,” Trustee John Corbitt said last Thursday. “We can fix it right now, if we had some money. I hope that this board is not being made scapegoats.”
Yet, at least two former board members said personalities are strong among S.C. State Trustees, and starting with a new board could save the university.
“Blaming the General Assembly isn’t going to work,” said Katon Dawson, a former trustee who resigned in December. “The General Assembly slashed everybody’s budget. But just about everybody adjusted. S.C. State did not.”
Dawson, who served as the budget chairman, said there has been a long history of micromanaging the university by trustees. When he arrived in 2013, he found that the school’s budget was in “pitiful shape.”
Further, just days after Elzey arrived at S.C. State, the university was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said Dawson, adding it was a “game changer” for a new administration.
Dawson said that during his time as a trustee, he tried to keep the focus away from the “personalities” of the board and, instead, concentrate on higher education. But the board has been fragmented for too long, he said, adding that the Legislature should moved sooner and “wiped the whole board clean” when the school’s financial woes became public.
Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, said that legislators do share the blame for the university’s problems. After all, they elect the board members, Govan said.
“Boards have been split over the years,” Govan said. “But each board was different.”
Attempts to reach several trustees Friday were unsuccessful.
Former Board Chairman Maurice Washington — who spearheaded the effort to hire Elzey — said the board became even more divided when a small majority pushed for hiring Elzey in 2013, instead of keeping interim President Cynthia Warrick.
There was even pressure on behalf of legislators to keep Warrick, Washington said, and those who opposed Elzey’s hiring got to stay on the board. That would ultimately set Elzey down a difficult path, Washington said.
“He understood the board challenges he was facing,” Washington added. “But I don’t think he was as knowledgeable about the financial issues that awaited him.”
Elzey was hired away from The Citadel, where he worked as the school’s executive vice president for Finance, Administration and Operations. Despite previous issues at the university, Elzey has taken the brunt of the blame for S.C. State’s recent financial and enrollment woes. Some lawmakers have also been critical of trustees for being unwilling to make needed cuts.
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.
The university is facing an estimated debt of $70 million, including $11 million owed to the school’s vendors. The school has made several bailout requests and lawmakers approved loans and grants totaling $18 million.
Elzey, according to lawmakers, was expected to present yet another request for $50 million over several years.
Washington said Elzey likely presented the school’s numbers as approved by board members — and their calculations were wrong, which is why he has returned with differing numbers before lawmakers.
“This is utter nonsense what they’re trying to do to this institution,” Washington said. “(Elzey) inherited this mess, and maybe we need to replace the entire board that doesn’t have animosity toward each other.”
“The sooner the board and the sooner the presidency are stabilized, the better,” Washington added.