South Carolina State Forges Ahead in Midst of Controversy

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by Reginald Stuart

 

Walter Tobin

Walter Tobin, the board of trustees chairman, said he “stuck his neck out and got kicked off the board.”

The embattled board of trustees of South Carolina State University signaled earlier this week it was moving ahead with its disputed agenda for the institution, announcing a four-year contract for its choice of a new president despite demands the process be put on hold.

Wednesday’s announcement of approval of the $300,000 a year-plus contract for Thomas J. Elzey, executive vice president for finance, administration and operations at The Citadel, was the result of a 6-4 vote taken despite the state legislature’s latest signal of dissatisfaction with the SCSU board.

In voting earlier this month for candidates to fill six expiring terms on the SCSU board, the legislature removed all four of the incumbent trustees who had championed the April board decision to select Elzey over interim president Dr. Cynthia Warrick. She had the backing of many members of the faculty, student body and alumni.

Among those removed from the board was veteran public school administrator and SCSU alum Walter Tobin, chairman of the SCSU board of trustees. He will be succeeded by Katon Dawson, a political moderate who is a former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party.

“I stuck my neck out and got kicked off the board,” said Tobin, adding he had no regrets. “I believe in my heart, he (Elzey) will do what we need.””

Snaring The Citadel’s finance chief did not come cheap. Several newspapers in South Carolina, citing public records, found SCSU’s leadership drew on a variety of sources to put together a package that would make it competitive in attracting top talent.

Elzey will get $170,000 a year in state compensation (in keeping with state compensation guidelines), $100,000 a year from the SCSU Foundation that will draw on a gift from an unidentified donor, a $25,000 housing allowance (offered since the institution does not provide on campus housing for its president) and $50,000 in incentive pay. Elzey will be given an automobile. The pay package also includes paying for his membership in the Orangeburg Country Club at $265 a month.

Elzey’s contract includes a provision requiring the university to pay a penalty if Elzey is fired without cause before his agreement expires in 2017.

Elzey is scheduled to start in his new post early this summer. Tobin and the three other trustees removed from the SCSU board leave office June 30.

In removing Tobin and his colleagues, the legislature signaled it was not done with the SCSU board, a group that has been in turmoil for several years. Legislation has been introduced that will complete its purge of the current board in board elections next spring and in 2015.

“It’s been real controversial,” said state representative Jerry Govan, a SCSU alum and veteran state lawmaker whose district includes South Carolina State. Govan said people in his area have been unhappy over the board’s decision to pass over  Warrick and unhappy about the size of Elzey’s contract coming at a time when state support for the university has been on the decline along with most state institutions.

Govan, increasingly critical of the governance of the university in recent years, said many of his constituents are also wondering who is giving the university $100,000 a year for four years to support Elzey’s salary.

“They need to be transparent,” Govan said of the SCSU board. “I’m hoping they will do that so we can move forward. I’ve been disgusted with the whole thing.”

Govan was one of the state lawmakers who earlier this year helped get a non-binding resolution passed urging the trustees to suspend their search for a president until after lawmakers had voted this month of whom would be on their board.

The legislature stopped short of ordering its wishes so as not to run afoul of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) rules regarding political interference in institution affairs.

When Elzey was selected last month, Tobin said it was not likely Elzey would be terminated before he starts even if his supporters were purged from the board, as no laws were broken in recruiting and selecting Elzey.

Elzey, who brings a rich portfolio of experience in the public and private sector and who joined The Citadel in 2011 as the first Black executive at the prestigious, historically White institution, had no comment on the contract action.

In addition to serving in Washington with the federal government’s Resolution Trust Corporation, he has served in senior finance positions at Drexel and, separately, Howard universities. He has also served as chief executive of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and, separately, budget director in the Office of Budget and Management for the City of Chicago.

In taking on the SCSU post, Elzey becomes the fourth chief executive of the institution in the past five years. During the same time, the university’s board of trustees has been in constant turmoil for an assortment of reasons.

Most recently, businessman Jonathan Pinson, the immediate past chairman of the board, abruptly resigned last December. Several weeks later Pinson, an alumnus of the university, was indicted on federal charges in connection with an alleged kickback scheme involving efforts by a Florida businessman to persuade the university’s board of trustees to buy land.

On the same day of the indictment, former SCSU Chief of Police Michael Bartley pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring with another SCSU employee to get the university involved in a land deal. The investigation continues.

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