David Lauderdale

The right vote: Bluffton’s Rose Newton maneuvers political minefields in USC controversy

Rose Buyck Newton of Bluffton returned to the familiar as she faced her first super-heated vote as a member of the University of South Carolina board of trustees.

She returned to her roots as a banker.

And that approach led her to vote “no” last Friday on the controversial up-or-down vote on naming retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. the next president of the 50,000-student university and university system.

“As a banker, I’ve grown up in a world where we are required to do things in a certain way,” Newton said this week, back home on Myrtle Island.

The board “had decided to continue the process of selecting a new president,” she said.

The task to replace retiring president Harris Pastides could have ended in April, but at that time the board opted not to hire any of four finalists resulting from a professional search that cost $137,000. Those finalists included Caslen.

Then the board hired an interim president and agreed to start anew, seeking new finalists.

That’s the process that was cut short at the urging of Gov. Henry McMaster. He first asked Caslen if he would reapply. And then he sought a vote on Caslen alone. On Friday, the board voted 11-8-1 to hire Caslen.

“My ‘no’ vote was to support the process,” Newton said. “It had nothing to do with the extraordinary person that Gen. Caslen is.”

She also recalled lessons from the MBA degree she earned at USC, exactly 30 years after her mother, the late Frances Reedy Buyck of Manning, became the first female to earn that degree at USC in 1964.

“Why are we now changing course?” she asked herself. “What is the overall risk to the enterprise? What is the greatest risk and reward to the university?”

That told her “it was better for us to continue the process.”

She was right.

The university’s accrediting agency is going to dig into it, citing a concern about political interference in academic affairs.

Faculty and student leaders opposed Caslen’s hire, as well as McMaster’s involvement.

Darla Moore, who rose from tiny Lake City to Wall Street, making enough money to become one of the university’s largest donors and namesake of its business school, said: “Not one constituency of the university is in favor of the current process, including the donors who are the lifeblood of the university’s future.”

Newton said board members got a call from the governor prior to the vote, “but he never encouraged us to take a specific action.”

She said, “It was not political in the beginning, and we tried hard not to make it political. Maybe the longer it went, it seemed like it was getting a little partisan, but you had Democrats and Republicans voting for both sides.”

For her, it had to be tricky.

Her husband, Weston Newton, is a Republican state representative from Bluffton. He practices law with his uncle, William W. “Wes” Jones of Bluffton, who held the USC board seat that Rose Newton holds until he was appointed by McMaster to the State Ports Authority in 2017.

Rose Newton was elected in 2018 by the state legislature to finish the last two years of Jones’ term. She is one of only three women on the 21-member board.

Meanwhile, she chairs the board of the Bank of Clarendon in Manning, where her mother’s father was one of the founders in 1932. She has commuted to work there since 1997. “I could be a consultant for DOT, telling them where all the potholes are on I-95,” she said.

The oldest of her three children, Reedy, will be a freshman at USC this fall, and Newton said her focus has turned to the future.

Caslen “hit the ground running,” she said. “I want to get him down here to USCB. The sky is the limit right now. I have nothing but wonderful, positive things to say about Gen. Caslen and his wife, Shelly.”

Newton said vision is needed as college enrollment across the country is expected to drop by 15 percent in less than a decade.

And that leads her again to her roots as a banker.

“The debt that young people have on their credit reports is overwhelming,” Newton said. “That translates into homes that they cannot buy. I see it every day. Something’s got to be done.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
Support my work with a digital subscription