Senate panel approves replacing S.C. State trustees

South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.

COLUMBIA — A Senate panel on Tuesday continued lawmakers’ efforts to clean house at South Carolina State University, passing a measure that would oust the Orangeburg school’s governing board.

The Senate Higher Education Subcommittee unanimously approved a proposal by Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, that would replace the trustees with a five-member board appointed by lawmakers. The trustees would serve until the Senate appoints the new board, which would serve through 2018 and have the authority to fire the current president and hire a replacement.

The subcommittee’s action came a day after S.C. State trustees voted to place embattled President Thomas Elzey on paid administrative leave, and follows recent efforts in the House to fire Elzey, but replacing the board with members of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said one of the major problems is that enrollment has been falling sharply at the state’s only public historically black university in recent years, but the school’s leaders haven’t adjusted spending. Elzey has had to ask for loans and bailouts totaling $18 million in the past year to keep the school open, while its debt has grown to an estimated $70 million.

“Unless there’s adjustments that are made, the future of the school is bleak,” Grooms said. “Everything has to be on the table. That’s the only way that the problems of the school are going to get solved.”

Subcommittee Chairman and co-sponsor of the bill, Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, said it’s the Senate’s desire to “get this bill through quickly.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, another co-sponsor, said quick action is needed because the board is “in essence lame duck.”

“I am not sure that the public trusts the existing board to choose the next leader,” Jackson said. “And it is not even fair for them to think that they should do that, and so that process doesn’t even need to begin.”

S.C. State Board Chairman William Small Jr. could not be reached for comment.

On Monday, with six of the 10 S.C. State trustees voting, the board unanimously approved placing Elzey on leave and named interim Provost W. Franklin Evans the acting S.C. State president.

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. He also receives a $50,000 deferred annuity, contingent on a satisfactory performance evaluation. According to the contract, which runs through June 2017, Elzey will receive the state-funded portion of his salary if he is fired without cause.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.