Too little, too late, from the board of trustees at S.C. State

On Monday, the board of S.C. State placed school President Thomas Elzey on administrative leave.

So the trustees of South Carolina State University have finally figured out the Legislature means business this time.

The state is getting ready to turn off the money spigot, install a bunch of financial wizards to run South Carolina’s only historically black public college — and get rid of the current management.

They have even threatened to close the university, which tends to happen when a school owes a tab on emergency loans that is close to $18 million and has no plan for repaying it.

So how do thus far-defiant board of trustees members respond to these ultimatums?

Well, they throw President Thomas Elzey under the bus, of course.

On Monday, the board placed Elzey on administrative leave, which is almost certainly a precursor to firing him. The board says this proves they are focused on the crisis, that they want to get the university back on firm financial footing.

We’ve heard that before.

The move is widely viewed in Columbia as a pre-emptive strike by board members to save their own jobs. Sorry, it’s not going to work — make no mistake, their days are numbered.

And former S.C. State board Chairman Maurice Washington says that is probably the right thing to do.

“I think they almost have to, to give the university a fresh start,” Washington says.

A real one, this time.

The politics of this situation are fairly transparent.

Elzey narrowly won the university’s presidency in 2013, by a margin of just one vote among board of trustees members. Since then, he has ruffled some feathers on- and off-campus. And it didn’t help that last July he told The Associated Press he had inherited a university in a financial freefall.

“I knew there was trouble ahead,” Elzey said. “I did not know it was going to be as deep of a problem — as deep of a hole as it turned out to be.”

Elzey said that S.C. State did not prepare itself for the recession, a reduction in enrollment and state funding. He said something derogatory about the university’s lack of “efficient operational processes.”

You think?

Is it really a surprise that the board, which is currently down a few members, would take advantage of Elzey’s momentary lack of support?

The board practically telegraphed it with that tepid “we will honor his contract” statement when the Legislative Black Caucus and Congressman Jim Clyburn expressed their extreme displeasure with Elzey.

Obviously, the board thought they had their scapegoat. But it’s not nearly that simple.

Not to minimize S.C. State’s culpability, but the Legislature is not without blame here. Lawmakers let it get to this point because of politics, some of it racial and some of it good ol’ boy stuff.

For instance, Washington was not reappointed to the board of trustees in 2013 because lawmakers said they wanted a fresh start. He says it had something to do with his refusal to call off a national search for a new president.

Funny thing is, at the time, the university was only $5 million in debt.

That was a fresh start, all right.

Washington says the whole story behind S.C. State’s problem has not been told.

Mismanagement is undeniably part of it, but the school has also spent tens of millions of dollars helping students who were qualified academically, but not financially.

He should know. When he walked on to the campus, he had $250 to his name. But he graduated with his degree — and without the burden of crushing student loans.

A lot of schools do this, and it is admirable. But most of the schools that do this have endowments. S.C. State handles this through its general fund.

The alternative is to turn away students, and it’s good that S.C. State has given these young people a chance. Besides, losing students has not worked out so well for them.

But something serious has to change at S.C. State, and it’s bigger than any one person.

Right now, the Senate’s bill to cure S.C. State calls for axing the board, but says little about the president. The House version wants to get rid of the board and the president — but only if that is deemed necessary.

Folks can honestly disagree whether Elzey is the right man for the job. Since so many lawmakers have it in for him right now, perhaps he isn’t.

But the bottom line is this: Firing Elzey is not going to solve S.C. State’s considerable financial problems.

And if the board of trustees thinks that it will, well, that just proves that they are a big part of the university’s problem.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.