In his first few days as the new president of South Carolina State University (SCSU), Thomas Elzey quickly learned that he would have his work cut out for him in leading an institution that has had 10 chief executives, including three permanent presidents, in the last 10 years.
“I came in and everything was dormant,” Elzey said in a recent interview. “Fundraising was dormant. Recruitment was dormant. Organization was dormant.”
In one instance, Elzey said it took several weeks to get an important list of information he sought. When the list arrived, there was another awakening: “It was outdated.”
Today, five months into his first and new position as a university president, Elzey is pursing an ambitious agenda to give the troubled institution a new lease on life.
“I was very well aware of the needs of this great institution,” said Elzey, who came to SCSU from The Citadel—the Military College of South Carolina, where he had been an executive vice president since 2011. “This was more than taking on just another job; this was an opportunity.”
His job, Elzey said, is to get others—from rank-and-file employees to government officials and private funders—to embrace that sentiment. As he expounds on his challenges and goals at SCSU, Elzey describes what observers might call a major overhaul.
“I have been very insistent [that] this is not business as usual,” Elzey said, referring to how many functions of the university have run in the past. “I’ve made sure all of our staff understands customer service is number one.”
He notes with a chuckle how he has modified the theme of one of his favorite songs by the late James Brown, “Pappa Don’t Take No Mess,” to “President Don’t Take No Mess.”
Elzey continued, saying he has created a “reorganization” structure for a new leadership team. He said he’s on the hunt for a provost who can serve as second in command at the institution. That job would be broader in responsibility than the vice president for academic affairs post he eliminated.
The new president also plans to hire a new chief financial officer and an “operations” person. He said he plans to appoint “several permanent deans” to posts that are now on interim status. He has already replaced his vice president for institutional advancement.
“I’m hiring only qualified people,” Elzey said. “I’m assembling a team of professionals to assume these high-level positions.”
Though Elzey’s appointment is considered as still being in its “honeymoon phase,” the circumstances he inherited upon starting work left no time for a honeymoon. In mid-June, as he was making final plans to start his appointment, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) placed the public college on warning status for a year. SACSCOC cited concerns about SCSU’s “finance and governance” condition and other complaints it had received. The regional accrediting agency gave the institution until June 2014 to address its concerns.
Meanwhile, the SCSU recruitment and enrollment staff greeted Elzey with a projection that, for fall 2013, enrollment was on target to drop by nearly 800 students from the fall of 2012.
Most students at risk of dropping out of SCSU were plagued with new financial issues stemming from tightened federal rules governing Pell Grant aid and access to funds in the federal Parent PLUS Loan program. Some 80 percent of SCSU’s students rely on federal aid.
As challenges amassed as the school year was about to begin, Elzey found he needed to quickly win friends and influence influential people. He issued an all-hands-on-board call and soon he and his crew were “on the phone,” calling foundations, alumni and other potential sources of immediate aid. He has also spent time speaking with state government officials to lay out his vision for SCSU’s future.
Foundations stepped forward and contributed $100,000 while alumni pulled together $50,000. Combined with other contributions, the call for emergency help allowed SCSU to provide enough needed financial aid to keep 400 students, nearly 50 percent of those at risk, from being cut from the university’s ranks.
Due to the emergency aid boost, SCSU was able to bring its official enrollment number for fall 2013 to 3,470, down 330 students from a year ago. Elzey said the final count of students—the major source of income for the university—means the institution will still operate at a deficit of some $4 million for the 2013-14 school year.
The university hopes to boost enrollment to 3,800 for the fall of 2014, Elzey said. That enrollment rebound would give SCSU a chance of breaking even financially for the 2014-15 school year. Falling short of that goal will mean more expense cuts, as was the case for this school year.
Observers are offering guarded praise of Elzey’s performance to date, noting he’s handled early emergencies well. He still has to successfully navigate next winter’s meeting of the state legislature and, separately, gain the full confidence of a governing board that is filled with members who are just as new to SCSU as is Elzey. The new president has spent time courting the board since the board members who provided the crucial majority votes to hire him are no longer on the university board. There are also the SACSCOC issues that must be dealt with by spring 2014.
“At this point, he’s doing the best he can,” said State Representative Jerry Govan, the veteran state lawmaker who is the ranking member of the Education Committee in the state House of Representatives and an alumnus of SCSU.
“I’m giving him a satisfactory [grade] and I’d be reluctant to go beyond that” at this point, said Govan, who has been a harsh critic of past governance practices of the board of governors and led the effort earlier this year to delay selection of a new president.
Govan added he felt Elzey is “proceeding cautiously” with his restructuring plans “rather than exercising knee-jerk reaction” actions.