Just when it looked as though things couldn't get any worse for S.C. State University, they have. First, the Board of Trustees voted last week to fire Thomas Elzey, the new president of the university who had been in his position for less than two years. Then a state-commissioned audit announced that the school owed its vendors $23 million rather than the $17 million that had been previously reported. And the state House of Representatives voted to remove all existing trustees of the school. Before all of that, two House committees proposed temporarily closing the school so it could get its finances in order. As the only public university in South Carolina finding itself in the midst of this type of turmoil, the question arises: How did things get so bad at S.C. State?
Back in April 2007, things were very different at the Orangeburg university. That month, the U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates had just announced that the campus would be the site of a 2008 Democratic presidential debate, making S.C. State the first historically black university to host such an event. The school was also thriving under then-university president Dr. Andrew Hugine, Jr., a S.C. State alum. Under his steady leadership, the school had secured $33 million in funding for the completion of a science building addition on campus.
That year, the university also secured funding for the construction of a 755-bed apartment-style housing complex for students. At the time, the $42 million loan for the construction of the student-housing complex was the largest non-student aid funding ever provided by the U.S. Department of Education to any institution.
In the wake of such heady times, enrollment numbers were up at the university, and the school had recently broken ground on what was to become the James E. Clyburn Transportation Center (JECUTC), a facility that would have made S.C. State home to the only university transportation center in South Carolina and one of only 33 total UTCs in the nation.
But in December 2007, a curious thing happened. The S.C. State Board of Trustees voted via telephone not to renew the contract of Dr. Hugine in a 7-to-3 vote. After a bitter separation, Dr. Hugine would go on to become the president of Alabama A&M University, where he has been ever since. Since Hugine's arrival, Alabama A&M has gone on to increase both enrollment and fundraising to record levels. By contrast, S.C. State has seen a revolving door of presidents since his departure.
Interim President Leonard McIntyre followed Hugine and George Cooper followed him. Cooper resigned in less than two years time. The most recent president ,Thomas Elzey, shared a similarly short tenure.
In the years since Hugine, the Board of Trustees has undergone several complete makeovers. A corruption scandal in 2013 caused the General Assembly to replace several board members while several others resigned. And a very public federal court case was responsible for the ouster of the previous chair of the board in the wake of several criminal charges. During this period of upheaval and financial instability, the only constant about the leadership at S.C. State has been change.
No university can survive, much less thrive, under such conditions. Enrollment at S.C. State has plummeted to record lows, and the four-year graduation rate has dropped to under 14 percent. Construction on the Clyburn Center, once a source of pride for the university, has also been halted amidst allegations of misappropriated funds.
It is folly to suggest that the host of problems plaguing S.C. State are purely the responsibility of Thomas Elzey. He unfortunately became the scapegoat for leadership failures that existed long before his tenure.
For S.C. State to reclaim the positive momentum it had just eight years ago, there have to be some fundamental changes in how its leaders are selected and maintained. Otherwise, it will be only a matter of time before the university is taken off life support and delivered its last rites.