Concerned Over Process

Faculty members at the University of South Carolina passed a resolution calling for a new presidential search as the university's Board of Trustees may consider a secretive option.

July 15, 2019
 
Robert Caslen

Amid an increasingly chaotic search for a new president, the University of South Carolina’s Faculty Senate sharply rebuked the Board of Trustees -- members of which say they could move forward with choosing a new candidate entirely in secret.

The board reopened the search in April after the favorite candidate, Robert Caslen, a retired three-star army general and former West Point superintendent, drew protests and division on campus. According to the Post and Courier, Caslen drew criticism for comments 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. Caslen was one of four candidates recommended by the search committee that the board passed over in favor of beginning a new search.

Though it appeared the board had the votes to approve Caslen as president by a thin margin, a court blocked the Friday vote for lacking to give appropriate notice for the meeting. The board plans to vote now on July 19.

However, three members of the board told the Post and Courier that they could select a new candidate whose name has not been revealed to the public, since they were still technically in a continuation of the search. The longest-serving member of the board said there’s another candidate who has support among the board and has yet to be revealed.

"This would be an even bigger breach of trust than hiring General Caslen. It’s incredible that they would even consider such a move," said Christian Anderson, a South Carolina professor of higher education, in an email. "The whole point of the campus visits is to vet the candidate -- to see if that person is a good fit for the institution. Even if they hire someone who is qualified, how does this person come to campus and have the trust and support of the institution and community?"

Marco Valtorta, South Carolina professor and chair of the Faculty Senate, said he wouldn’t provide an opinion on the idea that the board could vote on a secret candidate. The Faculty Senate voted last Thursday calling for the board to begin the search again, with public input. The board also voted to say they had no confidence in potentially naming Caslen as the president.

The senate’s resolution regarding a new search also denounced political pressure placed on the board from South Carolina’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, who has lobbied trustees to approve Caslen as president.

“Whereas, political interference in the selection of the university president conflicts with good governance of the university,” the Faculty Senate resolution reads, “and whereas the governor’s action has already transformed selection of our next president into a partisan conflict, defiant of deliberative process and destructive of trust, and whereas, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has demonstrated concern over gubernatorial interference in governing boards …”

Caslen has the support of many members of the state Legislature as well as the governor, which would play a significant role in the public university’s ability to lobby for funding.

The Faculty Senate resolution urged the trustees to also consider a public search in the hopes that it could yield the best candidates for the university. The senate said the university should conduct a new search compliant with the recommendations of the American Association of University Professors. The association recommends increased faculty participation in the search and that finalists should always meet with constituencies before their appointment to the executive position.

Anderson said he believed if Caslen was chosen after all that had happened, relations between the campus constituencies and the trustees would be deeply harmed.

"Relations between the board and faculty were always cordial, professional and respectful," Anderson said. "I think the faculty would lose trust in the board. So would students, alumni, staff and members of the community. This would be a terrible blow to campus relations."

With the extended search and chaos surrounding the process and outgoing South Carolina president Harris Pastides’s retirement date approaching, the board has appointed Brendan Kelly, the chancellor of the University of South Carolina Upstate, to serve as interim president. Kelly will take over for Harris Aug. 1.

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