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SC State University fires president amid low enrollment at historically Black university

James Clark.JPG (copy)

South Carolina State University President James E. Clark gives a tour of campus to former Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday, April 12, 2021. Clark was ousted by the board of trustees on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina State University's board of trustees voted to fire college President James Clark on July 13, ending a five-year tenure that had been marred by recent criticism that the former AT&T executive had not done enough to salvage the historically Black university's enrollment struggles.

In a brief statement, board chairman Rodney Jenkins said the majority of the board had voted to terminate Clark for cause effective immediately.

"The Board thanks President Clark for his service to South Carolina State University over the last five years of his term and wishes him much success in his future endeavors," Jenkins said.

Clark's lawyer, Donald Gist, told The Post and Courier that Clark was "shocked and dismayed" by the board's actions, saying they had offered no substantive explanation to the public for their decision.

"This university's stability has constantly been called into question, and once again the board has taken a step that we believe is a very damaging and drastic step to oust another outstanding leader of South Carolina State University," Gist said.

Gist declined to say whether Clark would pursue legal action against the university, but he said his law firm intends to "uphold and vigorously defend the integrity of James Clark."

The board's abrupt decision capped off a sharp fall from grace for Clark, who took over as the Orangeburg university's president in July 2016 with hopes of turning it around.

While S.C. State has historically been one of the largest and best-known of the Palmetto State’s eight historically black colleges and universities, the school has been mired in controversy for years.

In the early days of Clark's tenure, he helped steer the school away from the debilitating possibility of losing its accreditation due to financial messes and declining enrollment.

But another hit to enrollment during the coronavirus pandemic landed Clark in hot water. Some faculty and alumni declared that they had lost confidence in Clark's leadership, putting pressure on the board to take action.

The vote to fire Clark came just months after he received a boost of support from Nikki Haley when the former S.C. governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations toured the campus and said she believes in Clark's vision for the school.

"I would love to see what five more years of President Clark would do because I think it would be magic," Haley, a Republican who is likely to run for president in 2024 or beyond, said at the time of her visit.

Instead, Clark is out and the school is poised to search for a replacement.

Vice President Alexander Conyers, a retired U.S. Army colonel and S.C. State alumnus, will take over in an interim capacity after a unanimous vote by the board.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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