Firing James Clark is Too Little and Way Too Late at South Carolina State

In 2019, the nation’s public historically Black land grant institutions enrolled an average of 4,922 students. Many of them, spurred by increased funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and increased enrollment, were experiencing attendance growth or at the very least, stability.

The exception to the rule was South Carolina State University, which for the seventh time in 10 years had experienced a loss in total fall enrollment. The last four years leading up to the 2019 fall semester had been particularly painful for the institution, which in 2015 was nearly closed by legislative vote following criminal activity among board members, falling enrollment, and rising debts.

SCSU is more than 1,100 below where it was in 2015 when James Clark was installed as the president whom everyone under the sound of his shouting introductory press conference knew would blow the school up from the cover of the presidential suite.

It was clear when former SC Governor Nikki Haley appointed him, and when she visited the campus to jumpstart his fading fortunes on campus in April; Clark was the perfect choice for the Palmetto State’s political powers to harm SCSU without the social messiness of closing the school or cutting its budget. Bombastic in personality, basic in higher education knowledge, bending to political pressure and Black; he was a four-tool player in a game to take a powerful institution completely off the board without constituents noticing the harm being done.

From the beginning, Clark implemented policies that curtailed any action that could push the university beyond perpetual vulnerability. He limited out-of-state recruitment and enrollment that cost the institution millions in tuition revenues. He refused to develop a master plan and despite his political connections and increased appropriations, the university could not grow in any discernible way beyond cost-cutting measures and articulation agreements with community colleges.

And in a predictable flailing last act against the will of nearly every constituent group both on and off-campus, he is now threatening to sue the university where his underperformance has cost jobs, brand value, and credibility among stakeholders.

That lack of trust is the direct failure of the board of trustees, which extended his contract last summer in spite of concerns, and nearly fired him in March of this year. For whatever political pressure they may have faced to keep him, their presence and demands weren’t enough to reverse the bad fortunes of the school, and apparently, they had more clout for dismissal than they have let on in preceding months and years.

Firing Clark nearly two months ahead of the start of the academic year makes less sense than keeping him for the last three years. Acting SCSU President Alexander Conyers now faces the tall task of assessing an executive team and implementing strategies for the spring semester while acclimating to leadership and navigating the damage done without the benefit of a quiet summer break.

An ill-timed firing of a bad president is not sound leadership; it is the sign of a board that has no political capital, no ability to determine institutional outcomes, and no clout to attract a quality candidate who can rescue the school from the mess it has created. Clark may be the casualty at SCSU, but the culprits who are doing real harm to the institution are still very much at large and in charge.