COLUMBIA — South Carolina State University President Thomas Elzey’s eroding support all but vanished Wednesday, with renewed calls for his ouster by lawmakers and perhaps the school’s most influential alumnus.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and his wife, Emily, both of whom graduated from S.C. State in 1961, issued a public letter around midday saying Elzey and the Board of Trustees needed to be replaced in order to save the cash-strapped school.
Hours later, the House Ways and Means Committee tabled a measure that would close S.C. State for at least three semesters to deal with its estimated $70 million debt, passing, instead, a measure that would remove Elzey and the trustees.
Introduced by Charleston Republican Rep. Jim Merrill, the plan would replace S.C. State’s board with members of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, who would in turn “remove” Elzey, “if it is determined that would be in the best interest of the university.” Acting trustees would hire an interim president to lead the university, and the board would be reconstituted once the school is solvent, Merrill said.
The board is “divided beyond repair,” said Merrill, adding that its members were “supposed to keep the president on track,” but it was not happening.
“It really is as bad or worse than has been reported,” Merrill said.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, added that her priority — and that of the lawmakers who originally called for the school’s temporary closure — has always been keeping S.C. State open. She said, however, that the university’s financial woes are not recent.
“When you drill down into the fiscal issues at South Carolina State University, if one is honest, what you will see is that this has gone on for more than a quarter of a century,” Cobb-Hunter said.
She said that the problem is that the state’s only public historically black university was given “a pass” by white legislators who didn’t want to be viewed as racist, and by black lawmakers who bowed to the pressure of the university’s alumni.
“These problems are systemic,” Cobb-Hunter said. “They have been around for a long time and we have chosen to look the other way and let other people handle it.”
Elzey issued a written statement after learning of the proposal, in which he did not address the calls for his ouster.
“As president, my first priority continues to be the students of SC State University,” Elzey said. “We remain keenly focused on preserving the legacy of this great university and on continuing to doing everything necessary to move it forward.”
“We will stay the course, taking deliberate actions to address the critical matters required to stabilize this institution,” Elzey added. “Those include recruiting and enrolling a robust fall class, retaining our current scholars, increasing fundraising and alumni engagement and maintaining our SACSCOC accreditation, all while working with lawmakers to build a financially stable and viable institution that will serve South Carolina, this nation and the world for many years to come.”
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.
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. Despite having recently received $18 million in loans from the state, S.C. State was expected to request an additional $50 million over several years.
Wednesday’s measure passed unanimously just hours after U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and his wife called for Elzey’s ouster, saying in a letter that he has “minimal credibility” with lawmakers and “precious little support” from the school’s supporters.
The Clyburns also called for replacing the school’s board of trustees with a five- to seven-member governing board of retired executives and college presidents.
Even though the Clyburns called for drastic changes, they did not support closing the school even temporarily.
“The economy, less than equitable state support, and dramatic cuts in state and federal student aid are making college education for blacks in South Carolina less attainable,” the letter said. “The recent (ad hominem) attacks on SCSU and ill-conceived proposals for its future have sullied the school’s storied reputation and will further erode enrollment and undercut faculty and student recruitment.”
The letter is the second call for Elzey’s ouster. Last week, the Legislative Black Caucus took a no-confidence vote, and called on Elzey to resign.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlingon, said lawmakers could no longer remain on the sidelines and hope the school got back on track.
“South Carolina State has served our state well for decades, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the institution is failing to provide a valuable education to its students,” Lucas said. “Ignoring these struggles and allowing the University to continue spiraling down a path of financial and educational deficiency is irresponsible.
“Today’s decision by the House Ways and Means Committee is a step in the right direction. As sensitive as this issue is, rest assured that our sole purpose is to deliver the necessary assistance this situation requires so that South Carolina State can return to its full potential.”
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.