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House budget writers abandoned a plan Wednesday to temporarily shut down South Carolina State University, instead calling for the replacement of the institution’s leadership.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the decision is a “victory for everyone if we choose to see it.

“The priority is to keep S.C. State open and viable as an institution.”

The House Ways and Means committee tabled the budget proviso that would have closed S.C. State to students for two years while the state paid its bills.

The committee instead unanimously approved a plan that would remove the board of trustees and replace it with an interim board composed of the members of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority – the successor to the former Budget and Control Board – or their designees.

The interim trustees could then remove S.C. State President Thomas Elzey and employ an interim president on an at-will basis. The interim board would remain in place until lawmakers select new trustees.

The plan still needs to pass the full House and Senate.

Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, compared the original plan to close the university to a hand grenade that "had to blow up" before the healing process could begin.

Cobb-Hunter, who voted against that original plan to close the university, said the Legislature has taken its responsibility to appoint men and women to the board “very lightly.”

Men and women have served on the S.C. State Board who would never have been chosen to serve on the boards of Clemson, the University of South Carolina or the Medical University of South Carolina, she said.

“S.C. State ought to be held to the same standard as any other higher education institution,” she said. “Separate standards reiterate the idea that people of color can't pass muster. But it ain't about color, it is about competency.”

Loretta Hammond, an S.C. State alumna who attended the meeting, said the new plan is not acceptable. She is pleased that the school won’t close under the new plan.

"It is a tradition that cannot stop," she said. "We are prepared. Nobody is talking about the quality of the education. We've come out prepared, and we can compete. We know that it should not be closed ever."

Her husband, Weldon Hammond, who went to law school at S.C. State, said he left the meeting not much more confident than before.

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Hammond said he is concerned about having the State Fiscal Accountability Authority run the school given the way it has run South Carolina.

"We'll have eyes on the legislature, and we'll just see how it goes," Hammond said.

President Thomas Elzey issued a statement late Wednesday, saying that he “will stay the course, taking deliberate actions to address the critical matters required to stabilize this institution.

“We remain keenly focused on preserving the legacy of this great university and on continuing to do everything necessary to move it forward,” he said.

Vernelle Brown, president of the National Alumni Association, says she’s concerned about any decision that could make matters worse for S.C. State.

Her fear is that the Ways and Means plan could affect the institution’s status with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

S.C. State was placed on probation by the accrediting agency last summer. A report is due to SACS in March and a team will be visiting the campus in April. A decision about the institution’s status will be made in June.

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Contact the writer: dlinder-altman@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5529. USC Journalism student Avery Wilks is reporting from Columbia for The T&D.

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