“I’m a financial professional. I didn’t miss this.”
— Tony Grant, S.C. State
WHEN TONY Grant mentioned to me in 2011 that he was seeking another stint on the S.C. State University board on which he’d served some years prior, I asked why he wanted to go back given the heartaches the college was enduring at that time
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“I think I can help,” he said.
For sure, S.C. State needed help. It was struggling under poor board leadership, a revolving door at the president’s office, questions about funding for a proposed transportation center, financial strife. Legislators, some of whom had threatened to replace the entire board, were looking for a few good men and women to right the ship.
Four years later, the university is under tremendous scrutiny as its enrollment has declined, its finances have taken a nosedive, its debt has ballooned and its accreditation has become threatened.
The board and president, as the school’s leaders, have been the focus of criticism. A few lawmakers proposed closing the school for two years. While that went nowhere, there are proposals in the Senate and the House to replace the board with a temporary entity that would hire a new president. A Senate measure calls for a committee appointed by the House, Senate and governor to take control, while a House proposal would give the task to the Budget and Control Board.
Mr. Grant acknowledges S.C. State’s failings and says the school is not in a position to negotiate with the Legislature. But he said the notion that the entire board was asleep at the wheel while the university tanked isn’t true.
During an interview on Monday, he said he takes offense at suggestions that “we didn’t see it coming and we didn’t try to do anything about it.”
“I know I did my job,” he said. “I’m a financial professional. I didn’t miss this.”
Concerns from Day 1
Mr. Grant, who has 30 years of banking experience and is CEO of Grant Business Strategies, said he has raised questions and pushed for change for more than a year, to no avail. In July and on a couple other occasions, he spoke with me about his concerns.
Mr. Grant said he expressed serious concerns about Mr. Elzey’s ability to lead the university from day one. While the school already had challenges, he said, Mr. Elzey was ineffective at addressing them, and things steadily declined.
He shared emails and letters he had written asking questions but getting few answers about the financial condition of his alma mater.
Mr. Grant said not only was Mr. Elzey, whom the board recently placed on administrative leave, the wrong choice, but the manner and timing of his hiring were flawed. In April of 2013, a week before state lawmakers were scheduled to appoint six new trustees and despite requests by some legislators, fellow board members and our editorial board to delay action until after the new governing body was seated, a slim majority hired Mr. Elzey on a 6-5 vote.
From that time on, Mr. Grant said, protests by the board’s minority went unheeded.
One such occasionwas a May 21, 2013, meeting at which the board voted 6-4 to enter into a contract with Mr. Elzey. The minutes reflect Mr. Grant’s dissension: “Trustee Grant stated again he does not believe this is in the best interest of the University. He does not believe this is the best person. The whole process was flawed from the beginning. He asked (that) the Board not take any action and not to vote on the contract.”
In a Jan. 13, 2014, letter to board Chairman William Small Jr., Mr. Grant expressed concern about not getting financial reports and documents that would enable board members to see how the university was performing: “Mr. Chairman, I have been patient in working with our existing president and cabinet members.… I want to go on record to express concerns about financial reporting and documentation we have not received. These reporting tools are very much needed in order for the budget and finance committee to effectively review the university’s performance.”
He listed 14 bulleted items that asked questions about or called for information concerning, among other things, financial statements not received from 2013, balances owed to vendors and the length of time past due, information on the university’s cash flow and the status of major contracts. He also asked:
“What is the status of the president’s fundraising efforts?”
“What is the status of the Spring 2014 SCSU enrollment?”
“What is the president’s plan to correct the budget shortfalls/deficits?”
If you’ve been following the S.C. State saga, then you know those were some of the right questions to be asking. Declining enrollment and a failure to adjust the budget accordingly helped get S.C. State in this pickle. In addition, the school has been slow to craft a comprehensive plan to secure its future.
If it was clear that the school was in serious trouble and he and others saw it coming, why couldn’t they do something about it, I asked Mr. Grant.
He said the minority on the board “kept getting stiff armed” as they sought answers and solutions. He said after a while he determined the “best opportunity” to enact change would be at the time of Mr. Elzey’s evaluation, last June. He felt that, given the president’s performance, there was a chance to “push for an unsatisfactory evaluation.”
But the majority of the board deemed Mr. Elzey’s performance satisfactory although members said there was need for improvement. Only one board member voted against finding Mr. Elzey’s performance satisfactory: Tony Grant.
The satisfactory rating triggered a $50,000 bonus for Mr. Elzey. While that money came from a university foundation, it sent a bad message at a time when jobs were being cut, finances were seriously lacking and, at least according to Mr. Grant, the president wasn’t doing a particularly good job.
He said board members stuck with Mr. Elzey because of the college’s history of firing presidents. (Football coaches have a longer life span.) But in this case, Mr. Grant said, a change was justified because they had the wrong person in the position.
On Jan. 7, Mr. Grant, who chairs the board’s finance committee, sent an email to Mr. Small asking for similar information as he did a year ago, in preparation for a pending meeting. The last of the 12 questions asked: “What is the university’s overall comprehensive plan to address these serious concerns?”
That’s a question he has asked over and over, Mr. Grant said. It’s a question our editorial board, legislators and I’d dare say the public continue to ask.
“I think there is a desire to save S.C. State in some way, but it will never be the same,” Mr. Grant said.
As lawmakers advance proposals that would remove the board, some trustees are concerned about being made scapegoats for the troubles at S.C. State.
For his part, Mr. Grant reiterates that he raised the right questions in an attempt to get things turned around. But if it would help S.C. State if he left the board sooner than June, when his term ends, he’s willing to do so, he said.
“I went down there clearly thinking I could help.”
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.