Faculty and Alumni Have Called For This HBCU President to Be Fired. So Who's Keeping Him in Charge?

Members of South Carolina State University’s Faculty Senate voted 18-2 earlier this month for the firing of President James Clark. Professors say that enrollment, which has plummeted to 1,960 according to a letter written to university trustees, underscores Clark giving salary increases to cabinet members while finances remain under exigency status.

The letter follows a similar call of no-confidence from the South Carolina State University National Alumni Association in May 2020, which was 24 hours removed from an ominous announcement from the trustee board announcing an extension for Clark.

“This Board of Trustees, the university’s governing body, empowered by the general assembly of this state, is tasked with hiring, evaluating and terminating a president, acting in the best interest of the institution. The board makes its decision about leadership based on guidance provided by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, which sets criteria by which the performance of an agency head in higher education in this state should be evaluated,” South Carolina State Board Chair Rodney Jenkins said in part in announcing the two-year extension with an option for two additional years.

A vast majority of voting faculty, unanimous consent from alumni association members, and a third of the university’s executive have either voted ‘no’ or avoided the question of whether Clark should remain, who came into the position in 2016 as a former trustee and shouting his way into leadership.

Since then, the state’s flagship HBCU has languished in enrolling students and rightsizing its finances — the same struggles the school faced in 2015 when state lawmakers threatened to shutter the school for two years.

Clark has made good on that threat in plain sight over the last five years, and it begs the question of who is keeping him there to finish the job? Despite budget cuts and programmatic changes, a lack of students, particularly among out-of-state enrollees, is killing the university.

Six years ago, the South Carolina legislature tussled with the university over its right to install and maintain former president Thomas Elzey, whose firing eventually led to the dismantling of the SCSU trustee board and the reinvention of the group by handpicked legislative appointments, of which Clark was one.

It would be naive to assume that the same forces which wanted SCSU closed in 2015 felt differently a year later when Clark was named president. Considering that the university is in worse condition today than it was five years ago, and now faces a pandemic response that will take years and intense public support to stabilize the institution, a healthy assumption is that those feelings haven’t changed.

A reasonable indicator is that no elected official at any municipal, state, or federal level has raised any alarm about the state of the school’s suffering.

South Carolina State’s plight is not on Clark, and only by proxy the responsibility of the SCSU board of trustees; it is on Governor Henry McMaster and members of the state’s legislative body who apparently want him to be an agent of destruction and are forcing executives to allow the carnage to grow from within.

SCSU stakeholders must impress upon leaders at state and federal levels, particularly Black lawmakers, that the university is at stake with every passing day Clark remains as president.