South Carolina

Despite opposition, USC board hires retired general Caslen as school’s next president

What’s next for USC after new president is elected?

Luke Rankin, the Univesity of South Carolina student body president speaks Friday, July 19, 2019, about the role he played in the hiring of Robert Caslen and plans going forward.
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Luke Rankin, the Univesity of South Carolina student body president speaks Friday, July 19, 2019, about the role he played in the hiring of Robert Caslen and plans going forward.

A divided University of South Carolina board of trustees voted Friday to hire retired Army Gen. Robert Caslen as the school’s next president.

After a rare contentious meeting, the board rejected protests from faculty, some students and several politicians in choosing Caslen, the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The vote was 11-8. One board member abstained.

A crowd of roughly 128 students, alumni and faculty who had gathered in the Pastides Alumni Center, where the board met, began chanting “shame” minutes after the board voted.

Caslen was aware of the opposition to his candidacy and has pledged to meet with his critics and listen to them.

“I want to engage with my critics in the faculty and the students and take their advice,” Caslen told The State. “They’re valued members of the university and it’s important they realize that I see them that way.”

Asked how he felt to be named USC’s next president, he said, “I’m honored. I’m very grateful for those who put their trust in me.”

When Caslen spoke to students in April, he promised to emphasize improving USC’s rankings, boosting athletics and raising money.

“From talking with many people, it is clear the University of South Carolina is on track to be the preeminent institution of higher education in America today, and I will work to move this university and system in that direction, ensuring South Carolina continues to deliver a world-class education to students while making the state a better place to live,” Caslen said in a statement posted to Twitter.

Caslen, who was one of four finalists announced in April, has been a controversial candidate throughout the process. Students and faculty took issue with his involvement in the Iraq War, his support for the Contras in Nicaragua, his lack of a record on environmental sustainability and his lack of a doctorate degree. His supporters said they admire his 43 years in the Army and the high rankings West Point received during his tenure.

“Shame on them,” said protest organizer and social work professor Bethany Bell of the board members who supported Caslen. “They claim to represent the university and its constituents and then went through with on an illegitimate process.”

Many other protesters shared her feelings of frustration and disappointment, chanting “shame, shame” as the board meeting adjourned and several members walked by.

“I’m at a loss who the board is for,” said Deanna Smith, who helped organize the protest.

Though Smith opposed Caslen’s presidency, she thinks the board isn’t doing him any favors by hiring him.

“All the board members who claim to have such high esteem for Caslen are putting him in a tough spot,” Smith said.

There was a lone counter-protester, Ray Moore of Blythewood, who said, “this is a great day for the University of South Carolina and a great day for the state of South Carolina.”

“He’s a strong leader and I think he’s a peacemaker too,” Moore said.

Molly Spearman, who as state Superintendent of Education serves on the board, said that she had spoken at length with Caslen since April. “I was extremely impressed with his ideas and vision,” she said.

She believes he will relate well with all students from throughout South Carolina. Spearman also said Caslen talked about how he would overcome opposition to his selection, and he vowed to soon meet with those opposed to him.

But board member Charles Williams passionately urged his colleagues not to vote for Caslen. He criticized the process that brought board members together Friday, blaming Gov. Henry McMaster for his involvement.

“We’re going to destroy the university for the governor to call in a political favor,” he said.

Williams chided McMaster for getting involved in the search but not actually showing up to the meeting.

“The governor who said he was going to chair the meeting, where the hell is he?” Williams said. “He’s taking cover.”

McMaster has not attended a USC board meeting in his capacity as governor since he was sworn in, according to meeting minutes.

Williams, who was the first to speak up about McMaster’s influence in the presidential search, said the process was tainted back in April. Trustees were given “canned” questions to ask candidates and were only given feedback from students and faculty — 600 pages in all — just hours before a scheduled vote on the presidential finalists.

“There’s no way I could make any knowledgeable decision about these candidates,” Williams said.

“(Caslen) might be a fine man,” Williams said. “But how do I know?”

McMaster issued a statement praising Caslen’s selection, calling it “a positive and transformative step forward for the future of the university and the state. I am confident that every student, alumnus, faculty member and citizen of this state will benefit from his superior leadership, vision and direction, which he has demonstrated throughout his remarkable career.”

While Williams pushed back on the board for what he said was rushing a vote on Caslen, other board members said time was of the essence. They were concerned he might accept another job.

“This man, this great man, will be gone if we do not offer him immediately,” said Trustee Richard Jones said. “I think we would be losing an excellent leader.”

Trustee Eddie Floyd said Caslen had the votes needed to be approved in April, but the board held off because the decision wasn’t unified. At the time, the board voted to reopen the search which cost USC $137,000 — after students who opposed Caslen protested. USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly was named as interim president.

Several board members have stated publicly the protests did not play a role in their decision to reopen the search.

After the search was reopened, the board made no public moves toward appointing a new search committee nor retaining a new search firm. That was until earlier this month when it came to light that McMaster was pressuring board members to hold a vote for Caslen. Shortly after, a board meeting was scheduled for July 12, but was moved back by a court order.

McMaster’s involvement drew outrage from Democratic politicians, students, alumni and faculty.

But unlike the first round of protests against Caslen, these protests weren’t limited to primarily students. USC’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, has sent the school a formal letter asking for answers on McMaster’s involvement and warning that “undue influence” could affect USC’s accreditation, which allows the school to receive federal funds and lends legitimacy to the school’s degrees.

The American Association of University Professors could sanction the school for approving Caslen against a unanimous vote of “no confidence” from USC’s Faculty Senate.

“I’m fundamentally disappointed in this board,” said Todd Shaw, an associate professor of political science. “Despite opposition from all constituencies of this university, the board decided the governor’s vote means more.”

Vote breakdown

YES

  1. C. Dan Adams

  2. J. Egerton Burroughs

  3. A.C. “Bubba” Fennell III

  4. C. Edward Floyd

  5. Richard Jones Jr

  6. Hugh Mobley

  7. C. Dorn Smith III

  8. Molly Spearman

  9. John Von Lehe
  10. Eugene Warr
  11. Thad Westbrook

NO

  1. Chuck Allen
  2. Robert Dozier
  3. Toney Lister
  4. Miles Loadholt
  5. Leah Moody
  6. Rose Buyck Newton
  7. Mack Whittle
  8. Charles Williams

PRESENT

  1. William Hubbard
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