Politics and a New President in South Carolina

University of South Carolina Board of Trustees approved Lieutenant General Robert Caslen as the university's next president in a divided vote.

July 22, 2019
 
Robert Caslen

The University of South Carolina has a new president -- marking the end to a long and controversial selection process with little consensus or agreement. However, there's one thing all sides of the debate seem to agree on: politics was at the heart of the process.

Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, a former West Point superintendent, will be the next president of the University of South Carolina after a split vote of the Board of Trustees -- a rare thing in a board’s selection of a new president -- with 11 voting yes, 8 voting no and one abstention.

It was a bumpy road for the president-elect to arrive in his new office. But on Friday, the trustees voted, with some exchanging long speeches over whether the scheduled vote should occur at all. Trustee Richard Jones Jr. spoke at length about his fear that if the board didn’t vote now on Caslen, they may never have an opportunity.

“One of my concerns is this man, this great man, will be gone if we do not offer him immediately,” Jones said. “To some, maybe that’s no big deal. But I think we would be losing an excellent, excellent leader.”

Along the way, Caslen was originally one of four finalists presented publicly by the board, and he became a clear favorite. However, faculty and students expressed their disapproval of Caslen for a variety of reasons, including comments he made blaming sexual assault on binge drinking, a lack of a research background, and for being one of the top choices to be President Trump’s national security adviser.

“This is the saddest day I can ever remember at the University of South Carolina,” one trustee, Charles Williams, said during a speech at the board meeting. “The damage is done. It’s just a matter of how much more damage there’s going to be.”

The board opened a new search while Caslen remained a top choice of the divided board. However, the Faculty Senate recently held a vote of no confidence against Caslen. Now, Caslen will have to build trust in his position as he prepares to take office, finding a way to work with the suspicious constituencies within the university.

“Just to see a blatant disregard of all that has happened,” statistics professor Bethany Bell said of the search process. “Thousands of people have signed petitions; 600 emails were sent in five days. It was eye-opening for me about how deeply political this is and was and how it goes beyond our Board of Trustees.”

Politics in the Process

One of Caslen’s most fervent supporters on his path to the presidency has been the state's Republican governor, Henry McMaster. It’s been reported McMaster called trustees throughout the process to lobby in favor of Caslen’s candidacy -- lending a polarizing aspect to the search that concerned many.

An ABC affiliate in South Carolina reported that Darla Moore, a billionaire and top donor to the university, sent a note to the chair of the board before the vote asking he “reject the rank political influence in selecting the next president.”

A “hot mic” incident also recorded a member of the board saying that students protesting the meeting were “from out of town.” Trustee Egerton Burroughs claimed in a statement that he had made the comments.

“I've heard some of that Kamala Harris crowd is there,” Burroughs was caught saying. “They got this thing all tied into the Democratic primary.”

Even Jones, one of Caslen’s staunchest supporters at the board meeting, pointed to politics playing a large role in the process.

“A lot has been said about this process being political,” Jones said. “It was political long before [the governor’s involvement]. There was a politicization of this issue when the first opportunity we had to vote came up. People were giving their opinions, as well you should.”

Christian Anderson, a South Carolina higher education professor, said board proceedings are not always this political.

“It’s unfortunate,” Anderson said. “We’d have to hit the archives to find a time the governor of South Carolina even attended a Board of Trustees meeting -- and suddenly Governor McMaster intervenes in this way? Greater political interference certainly seems to be happening with alarming frequency around the country, even if not always in the same way.”

Both Bell and Anderson said it would be difficult to build trust with faculty members after so many issues with the process.

“With the faculty the No. 1 thing he’s going to have to do is hire a great provost with the maximum possible input and participation from faculty,” Anderson said. “And then he’s going to have to let that person run the academic side of the house with a promise to safeguard academic freedom and let the provost and faculty work out issues related to curriculum and research.”

Caslen said in a Twitter post after his appointment that he understood the challenges the board faced in his selection.

“I will work tirelessly to listen to all of our students, faculty, staff, board members, and all our constituents to understand their concerns and issues, and I will actively seek their advice,” Caslen said in the tweet.

According to the South Carolina website, Caslen will officially take office later this summer. Caslen will be the 29th president of the university, replacing retiring president Harris Pastides.

“I hope you know that all of us … [the trustees], whether we’ve been pro or con or in the middle, we’ve tried to do the right thing,” Jones said. “It’s not easy.”

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