An attorney representing the ousted president of South Carolina State University said James Clark will explore his legal options following what the lawyer called an unfair termination.
Clark was named S.C. State's 12th president in 2016 after serving a one-year stint on a seven-member interim board appointed by the South Carolina legislature to help the university out of financial difficulties.
The S.C. State trustees unanimously approved a new contract with Clark in November 2020. The contract negotiated by Clark and the board members included a two-year term with an option to extend for an additional two years based on Clark's meeting performance benchmarks that align with the university's strategic plan.
Clark received an annual salary of $195,000, as set by the State of South Carolina, plus benefits, including health and life insurance, annual leave, sick leave and an automobile.
During a special teleconference meeting on Tuesday, the same board of trustees voted 10-3 to remove Clark as president. Retired U.S. Army Col. Alexander Conyers was tapped to serve as acting president until further action by the board is taken.
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Conyers, an S.C. State graduate, was named by Clark as vice president for strategic alliances and initiatives in May.
Donald Gist, a lead attorney with the Columbia-based Gist Law firm, is representing Clark in what the attorney said was an unfair termination.
"We're representing Mr. Clark. Mr. Clark is the second president of South Carolina State University that I have represented in the last eight years. I formerly represented Dr. George Cooper," Gist said.
"We have looked at the account released by the board that they've terminated my client for cause. Specifically, it's quite interesting that the board has not explained the cause to us or the members of the general public. There is some issue with respect to decline in enrollment that's been floated around but, again, every major university, and particularly HBCUs, because of the pandemic have had a decrease in enrollment," Gist said.
The board at Tuesday's meeting cited Clark's violation of Section 7.1 of his employment contract as reason for termination. According to the contract, the section cites gross negligence in the performance of his duties that materially harms the university; felonious and fraudulent acts that involve material dishonesty or fiduciary breach; a formal indictment; and repeated failure to perform duties.
In the event of termination for cause by the board, the contract states that Clark's employment would cease and he would not be entitled to "any further compensation or benefits except for benefits required to be continued by law."
Following the special meeting, board Chairman Rodney Jenkins did not specify what prompted Clark's termination.
"I can't go into that because all that discussion was in executive session," he said, noting that he could not comment on whether the board is concerned about the university's stability.
"I'm not going to make any comments at this point on any position until the board and I come back together at a future date. At this time, I'm not going to make any more comments," he said, noting that he had "no definite" plans on when the board would meet again.
Gist said, "Mr. Clark has received tremendous support from the corporate community, and Mr. Clark has a great love for the students at South Carolina State University. Mr. Clark, like other presidents at universities working for these out-of-control boards, primarily has done his job, and he's done his job very well.
"I think that when the final truth comes to light, the general public will see that this was a move by certain members of the board, and supported by at least 10 members of the board, to oust Mr. Clark after more than a 3-1/2-year effort to get him out of the office."
Gist continued, "I can tell you that we're not going to stand idly by and allow my client to be terminated for cause when cause is not enunciated in the newspaper, and certainly my client didn't have an opportunity to defend against any such cause allegations."
The attorney said Clark was not allowed to address the board nor to defend himself.
"So we believe that a man who had great love for the students, we believe that a man who actually took over the leadership at South Carolina State University in a time of great turmoil and financial distress, we believe for that man to be treated the way he was by this board at South Carolina State University is just really shameful. We believe that the facts will bode in our favor as we attempt to move forward," Gist said.
"Our next step at this point is to look at his legal options and advise him accordingly. You'll be hearing from him," he said.
In the meantime, Conyers will be taking the reins at the university as acting president. The S.C. State alum has 28 years in the U.S. Army and holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from S.C. State, a master’s degree in corrections from the University of South Carolina and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy University.
He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and The University of North Carolina’s Leadership, Excellence and Development (LEAD) program. He is also a member of several professional associations, including the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education, and a former adjunct professor at Upper Iowa University.
The South Carolina State University Faculty Senate in March passed a resolution stating it had no confidence in the university’s president, with low enrollment and the return to classroom learning being key issues.
The Faculty Senate voted 18-2 in favor of the resolution with claims that the president also failed to produce a master plan and hadn’t resolved the university’s financial crisis.
The national alumni association had also called for the board to issue Clark a one-year contract extension and asked trustees to set up a national search committee to find a new president.
Clark defended his performance, citing, among other things, an $80 million-plus positive financial impact on the university over the last four years, including the highest amount of state appropriations per capita since 2007, and three new state-of-the-art facilities worth more than $15 million.
The Faculty Senate on Tuesday issued a statement welcoming the change. "We welcome Colonel Conyers as the Acting President, and we look forward to working with him. We also look forward to the national search for a permanent president, and we encourage the University Board of Trustees to proceed actively and intentionally with input from its major stakeholders including students, faculty, staff, and alumni. We hope that the Board of Trustees operates with greater transparency and in keeping with the spirit of shared governance. Together we can restore, rebuild, and reclaim the level of excellence that is synonymous with SC State University. SC State University has a stellar legacy for the next administration to build upon. In closing, the faculty would like to thank President Clark for his service rendered to the university and offer best wishes to him and his family in their future endeavors."
Members of the Orangeburg County Legislative Delegation on Tuesday expressed either concern about the university's stability or said they need more information.
"I am very concerned about this latest change in the leadership at the university. Here we go again. More of the same. It seems that South Carolina State's board of trustees believes it makes sense to change presidents every six or seven years or so. I'm very concerned about the lack of stability and continuity at South Carolina State," Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said.
"I think the move was very shortsighted. I am hopeful that the long-term implications don't come back to haunt these board members for this decision," she said.
Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, an S.C. alumnus, said, "Until we learn more details in terms of why the contract was not renewed, or why it was terminated, I think that would be prudent before people start jumping to conclusions or getting into this debate of stability."
"I think the prudent thing would be to wait and get all the facts before really doing a deep dive in terms of whether it is the right move for the university at this time," he said, noting that there have been some legitimate concerns expressed among alumni and others that "were not really addressed."
"I think it's disingenuous to those of us who really have invested a lot of time and effort as alumni of the university and care about South Carolina State University and what it means to the Orangeburg community. So in all fairness, I mean these colleges are going to experience turnover and change."
Cobb-Hunter said, "My perspective is that of a budget subcommittee member who has been watching this university for the last almost 30 years go through president after president.
"When the legislature stepped in and got rid of the old board, there were tremendous issues at the university, particularly fiscal issues. From my perspective as a budget writer, what President Clark and his team did to bring some fiscal soundness, policies and procedures to that university were long overdue."
Cobb-Hunter continued, "Our subcommittee showed our confidence in the progress that the university had made through the budget appropriations we did this session. We were very generous with them because it appeared to us that the university was on stable financial footing and that there was some stability there.
"I just hope that they have thought this through. I'm concerned, for example, about this project with Savannah River and who will step in as far as that project is concerned. A lot of these things are built on relationships."
Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Bowman, said, "I respect the board's decision. They're there, they understand the intricacies of what's going on with the university. They have a vision for the university. If that vision was not the same as the vision of the current president, then I respect them for making a move."
Stephens continued, "The South Carolina General Assembly has been very liberal this year in giving the university basically what they asked for. We went on record as giving more this year than we have in many, many years. With that being said, we need to make sure that the university has the board's support, as well as a president who will lead through these times."
Stephens said the turnover among those who have served as president has been an issue.
"I'm hoping that this board does see that we need to bring some stability back to the university. We need to market ourselves as a viable institution for higher learning and attract those students not only from the close proximity of the university, but throughout the state of South Carolina and the United States as a whole."
Cobb-Hunter said, "We have a lot of work to do in this state as far as board training. This is just not South Carolina State, but (University of South) Carolina as well. What this shows to me is that we have got to task the Commission on Higher Education with coming up with some kind of board training for board of trustee members.
"I've said this for a very long time time. We as legislators need to take more care and consideration into who we put on that board. We've got to do a better job of the kind of people we put on the board. When we get people who have experience, it's kind of tough for people to want to remain in an environment where the petty becomes priority."
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