Patricia Lott and Walt Tobin illustration

Patricia Lott, left, and Dr. Walt L. Tobin each claim to be the legitimately elected chair of the South Carolina State University Board of Trustees. The situation reveals deep splits among trustees as the Orangeburg institution readies for its annual homecoming celebrations this week.

T&D ILLUSTRATION

All seems peaceful on the South Carolina State University campus as faculty and students attend classes and go about their business as usual.

But behind the scenes, two trustees are claiming to be chairman of the board, raising questions how the situation will be resolved if neither bows out. Both say they want a resolution, but neither seems ready to give up the job. Standing behind each is a team of trustees.

Dr. Walt L. Tobin says he’s the legitimate chairman and will continue to act as chairman.

“I’m not fighting this,” he said. “I’m just following procedure.”

Patricia Lott says she feels confident about the legitimacy of her chairmanship, although she doesn’t want the issue to play out in the media.

“I just want and hope the board can come together and settle this privately and not settle it in the media,” she said.

Tobin was named chairman on Sept. 27, following a three-way election in which he received five votes while Lott got four votes and then-Acting Chairman John Corbitt got two votes.

Six trustees later claimed the election was invalid. They called a meeting on Oct. 17 and elected Lott with a vote of 6-0.

Corbitt said that Tobin is not chairman.

“My position is, he cannot claim to be the legally elected legitimate chair if he did not receive a majority of the sitting board as required by the bylaws,” Corbitt said. “The bylaws do not require trustees to accept somebody as chair who did not receive a majority.”

Tobin and his supporters still say the meeting in which Lott was elected was illegal because they weren’t given five days notice.

However, Corbitt says that a quorum of trustees attended the meeting and that constituted a waiver of the required five-day notice.

Tobin supporters say the time to challenge his election was during the Sept. 27 meeting. According to the rules, they say, the election couldn’t be challenged once the meeting was over.

Dr. Dennis Nielsen, recently appointed to the board by Gov. Nikki Haley, said he’s standing behind Tobin. He said he didn’t attend the Oct. 17 meeting because it wasn’t valid.

“I certainly do support Dr. Tobin,” Nielsen said. “He’s a fine man, a very capable man. The reason I didn’t have a question about his election is ... when he was elected, there was no point of order raised and the gavel was passed and the picture was in the paper.”

Once that action takes place, the election is final and cannot be brought up again, he said.

However Nielsen said he wants to work with the board to resolve the issue.

“I have nothing against anyone on the board, and I want to work with them,” he said.

Everyone needs need to remember that the board should be acting for the welfare of the students and faculty, Nielsen said.

“We’re sitting here, stuck in the mud, and I don’t like it,” he said.

The board is made up of intelligent people who should be able to work together and move ahead, he said.

“If we can’t make a decision, I suppose someone above us is going to have to decide, and I don’t know who that is,” Nielsen said.

That really would be a shame, he said.

“If we can’t make decisions for ourselves, how can we make decisions for the university?” he said.

Trustee Maurice Washington says Tobin is chairman.

“My support for Chairman Tobin remains solid,” he said.

Like Nielsen, Washington said that the fact that Tobin was recognized publicly as chairman and received the gavel before the meeting was closed means that he is the legal chairman.

“Had the objection been raised before the gavel was exchanged and before the meeting was ended and before it was published in The T&D as our bylaws require, the outcome potentially may have been different,” he said.

“Some people are cherry picking the law and that gets them where they want to go,” he said.

The same group that wants to hold Tobin to bylaws requiring a simple majority, or six votes, to become chairman ignored another section of the bylaws in 2010, Washington said.

Tobin had been legally elected chairman that year with 7 of 13 votes, and some of the same people later voted to elect another chairman without following proper procedure to remove Tobin, Washington said. That would have required a two-thirds majority.

Washington noted that both Tobin and Lott are graduates of S.C. State who love the university and donate money and time to it.

He said he’s hopeful that the two can come to an agreement that “would be in the best interest of this university.”

Washington said he’s also “gravely concerned about how this situation will affect the university’s SACS accreditation.”

The Times and Democrat tried to reach trustees who called Wednesday’s meeting that elected Lott as chairman, but was only able to speak with Lott and Corbitt.

Contact the writer: dlinder-altman@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5529.

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