S.C. State University president Thomas Elzey won a reprieve Wednesday, when a judge halted efforts by school trustees to fire him after less than two years on the job.
The university’s board met behind closed doors for more than two hours Wednesday, deciding to negotiate a separation settlement with Elzey, who sued Tuesday for breach of contract, school officials said.
Before the emergency court order, trustees of the embattled Orangeburg had been expected to fire Elzey, placed on paid suspension a little more than a week ago.
As state lawmakers debate replacing S.C. State’s board, Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson said Wednesday that he wanted to give any new trustees, named by lawmakers, a chance to decide Elzey’s fate.
Dickson set a hearing on Elzey’s lawsuit for March 12.
It’s unlikely legislative proposals to replace S.C. State’s trustees will be passed by next week. Senate and House proposals to replace those trustees differ on who should take over the school’s board temporarily.
The Senate voted 41-1 Wednesday to approve a bill to replace those trustees with a five-member board, appointed by lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley. A House panel is expected to send its bill, which hands authority of the university to the S.C. Budget and Control Board, to the House floor Thursday.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said Wednesday that S.C. State could run out of money by May or June without more cash from the state.
The state’s only historically black public college owes vendors and the state more than $17 million.
Elzey sued S.C. State Tuesday, alleging it had breached his four-year contract, which runs through June 2017. He would be owed more than $400,000 in state pay and unpaid vacation if he is fired without cause.
Elzey’s lawsuit seeks additional damages for humiliation and emotional distress.
“He’s asking for a ton of money,” said Ken Childs, an attorney for S.C. State board. “And the school is broke.”
The suit was filed in Orangeburg County after negotiations between Elzey and trustees broke down, said Nancy Bloodgood, the president’s attorney.
S.C. State’s trustees have not said why they suspended Elzey and replaced him with interim provost Franklin Evans.
Elzey arrived in Orangeburg from The Citadel in June 2013, charged with fixing the school’s finances. Seven months later, he said S.C. State had a $14 million deficit, the result of seven years of excessive spending.
Black state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat and S.C. State graduate, say Elzey failed to make enough cuts at the school to offset its falling enrollment.
S.C. State’s enrollment has slid by 40 percent since 2007 to less than 3,000 students.
Elzey has said trustees would not allow him to make deeper cuts, including ending the men’s basketball program.