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Students Megan Rigabar, Lauryn Workman and Emily Fisher speak on Monday at a forum for University of South Carolina presidential finalists.

Olivia Halverson

When the University of South Carolina last week revealed the names of the four finalists vying to be its next president, students and faculty immediately saw that something was off: all four are men.

That concern grew even louder on Monday, when student activists met with university officials and learned that the finalists had been chosen from a larger list of 11 semifinalists -- all of whom are men as well, according to students. The university did not respond to a request to confirm the statement.

“We find it very difficult to believe that there are no qualified female candidates for this position,” said Megan Rigabar, a South Carolina senior who has helped lead a growing protest against the process. “USC didn’t find them -- and we don’t think they were looking hard enough.”

In response, students and faculty have signed on to an open letter protesting the process, if not the finalists themselves.

In a statement, university spokesman Wes Hickman said the search committee “made a commitment to pursuing a diverse pool of candidates and took proactive steps to make that happen.”

Though just two of the 11 members of the search committee are women, according to South Carolina’s presidential search website, Hickman said the firm Parker Executive Search “deployed an all-female and diverse recruitment team to assist the effort.” The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

Hickman said the committee saw a pool of more than 80 candidates who were "diverse in terms of both underrepresented minorities and gender. These four finalists are the leaders that the search committee believes are best qualified and prepared to serve as our 29th president. While the pool did not result in a female finalist, each of these candidates has expressed a strong commitment to diversity," he said.

Melissa Trotta, associate managing principal of the Washington-based firm AGB Search, said most presidential candidate pools include “greater gender balance” than this one. “A more diverse finalist pool requires that there is greater diversity in the semifinalist group selected for first-round interviews. Search firms will typically be attuned to ensuring diversity in its various forms, starting with the semifinalist candidates invited for interviews.”

The university’s Board of Trustees is expected to vote on the position Friday. South Carolina has never had a female president. In December, Joan Gabel, its first female provost, was named president of the University of Minnesota -- where she'll be that institution's first female leader.

The four South Carolina finalists are: John S. Applegate, executive vice president for university academic affairs in the Indiana University system; Robert L. Caslen Jr., senior counsel to the president and interim chief financial officer at the University of Central Florida and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; William F. Tate, dean of the graduate school, vice provost for graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis and past president of the American Educational Research Association; and Joseph T. Walsh Jr., vice president for research at Northwestern University in Chicago.

In its listing, South Carolina says the new president should possess a “strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,” among other qualities.

Higher Ed Mostly Female

The all-male finalists’ pool stands in contrast not just to the demographics of the University of South Carolina, where 54 percent of students are female, according to federal data -- but to higher education in general.

Longitudinal data from the U.S. Department of Education show that the number of women in undergraduate institutions surpassed men in the 1980s and has only risen since then. In 2018, women were projected to represent 56.2 percent of undergraduates.

In its most recent survey, the American Council on Education found that the percentage of bachelor’s colleges led by female presidents rose from 23 percent to 28 percent between 2006 and 2016. Nearly 33 percent of public bachelor’s colleges were led by a woman, it found; at private nonprofit institutions the figure was just over 26 percent.

At doctorate-granting institutions like South Carolina, the figures were slightly lower: nearly 22 percent overall had a female president, with 23 percent at public institutions and 20 percent at private institutions.

Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women, said the fact that not a single woman was even a semifinalist for the South Carolina role is “quite frankly, astonishing. The University of South Carolina is a public institution, and as such, receives federal and state funding. Unequivocally, there are lots of qualified women for top positions in academe, and it is incumbent upon search committees to be proactive in identifying and recruiting them. Given the pool the search committee presented, it appears like an inclusive process to bring diversified candidates didn’t happen.”

Churches said the exclusion of women in this case “clearly suggests to me that the legacy of discrimination and bias is alive and well.”

The search committee was led by Hubert F. Mobley, a member of the university’s Board of Trustees and 1978 alumnus of the School of Pharmacy. He did not respond to a request for comment.

South Carolina’s release of the finalists' list led students, faculty and staff this week to sign the open letter demanding that the finalists more closely match the university's diversity, The State reported. By Tuesday, the group had grown to encompass 32 student organizations and more than 70 faculty and staff, students said.

In an interview, Rigabar, the student who has helped lead opposition to the process, said she and other students have asked the board to release demographic details on all 80 candidates. The search “is a symptom of a broader issue of systemic gender inequality” at the university, she said.

A classmate, Jordan Wayburn, said the search process has been “incredibly opaque,” with little access to information about the candidates.

Students on Tuesday said they are trying to garner enough support to persuade trustees to postpone Friday's vote and consider a more diverse group of finalists. While Tate, one of the four finalists, is African American, Rigabar said, “Gender diversity, it seems, has been ignored.”

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