S.C. State trustees to stay the course

The S.C. State University Board of Trustees met Thursday in Orangeburg to discuss lawmakers’ calls for closing the cash-strapped school and ousting its president.

ORANGEBURG — South Carolina State University’s trustees on Thursday responded to lawmakers’ attempts to shut down the cash-strapped school and oust its president by saying they would continue with plans to attract more students while making cuts as needed.

The school’s governing board met for several hours on the Orangeburg campus, first in regular session, then in an emergency meeting to discuss legal advice behind closed doors. The meetings follow two days of attacks by state lawmakers on its leadership and worsening finances.

Afterward, Board Chairman William Small said the trustees intend to continue the course they’ve been on since President Thomas Elzey took over 20 months ago following previous corruption scandals, mismanagement that has left the school at least $70 million in debt and the firing of presidents and top administrators.

Elzey, who came to S.C. State from The Citadel, is paid $173,400 a year, plus another $100,00 in benefits and other compensation, according to state employee records.

“We have an employment contract with our president ... which we will respect,” Small said, reading from the trustees’ statement. “Honoring this contract, of course, includes a professional performance evaluation, which we will perform and make public.

“Just as President Elzey inherited many of the current problems of the University, the present board also inherited these problems.”

Those problems, and a perception among some lawmakers that Elzey and the trustees weren’t willing to make the deep cuts in programs, faculty and staff needed to stem the red ink at the state’s only public historically black college, led to the calls this week for temporarily shutting the school down.

On Tuesday, a House subcommittee led by Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, voted 3-1 over the objection of Orangeburg Democrat Gilda Cobb-Hunter, to close the roughly 3,000-student school for at least three semesters and lay off Elzey, administrators, faculty and the rest of the employees. The next day, a second House panel voted 7-1 in favor of that plan. Also, the Legislature’s Black Caucus took a no-confidence vote on Elzey, calling on him to step aside for the good of the school.

Calls to Merrill, other lawmakers and members of the Black Caucus on Thursday were not immediately returned.

After the trustees’ meeting, Elzey spoke about efforts to cut costs at the university, but declined to answer questions or comment on calls for his resignation.

“We talked at this university over the last year about numerous options to right-size the university,” Elzey said. “Certainly we’ve considered a number of different options, but we have to weigh the impact of those options and those types of cuts on our great university.”

According to Merrill, lawmakers were expecting Elzey to request an additional $50 million over several years in addition to the $18 million the state already has loaned and given the school above its operating budget to pay its bills and meet payroll.

Despite reports that the president intended to provide trustees with a detailed plan, including cutting several majors and faculty, Elzey, instead, provided a summary Thursday on how the university will address its financial woes. A plan has been provided to the House Ways and Means Committee, he said.

Among the steps the trustees plan to take are hiring consultants to develop ways the school can reverse its declining enrollment.

Small said the board has an obligation to “ensure that we do not panic, given the situation in which we find ourselves.”

Meanwhile, state senators kept up the pressure on the school Thursday, passing a resolution 40-0 that allows S.C. State to institute mandatory 20-day furloughs for all employees.

Across the hall, Reps. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, and Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, introduced a resolution that removes the current trustees and instructs the state Budget and Control Board to remove the university’s president and appoint an interim chief.

Small said the furlough “gives the university the flexibility to manage its economic situation and maintain as many employees as we can,” but objected to the second proposal.

“I think that’s premature,” Small said. “I think that there’s a lot of discussion that needs to take place about the future of this university and how we serve the constituency and the needs of this state.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.