USC presidential finalist says comments on sexual assault were taken out of context

University of South Carolina presidential finalist Robert Caslen said those who called for the school to reject him took his comments about sexual assault and alcohol out of context.

Caslen, one of four finalists to be the next president of the University of South Carolina, was met with protests during his interview with the USC Board of Trustees on Friday. The protests were aimed at more than Caslen — some students said the presidential search process was flawed because it turned up no women finalists — but one of their key points was Caslen’s statement on how he tried to fight sexual assault while superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 2013 to 2018.

The university has reopened its presidential search and named USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly as interim president starting Aug. 1.

Here is what he said during last week’s forum:

“We went after this...not only sexual assaults, but we want to take up the contributing measures toward sexual assault, particularly alcohol,” Caslen said during the forum. “We had to spend a lot of time, a lot of energy, toward educating students about the consequences of alcohol, binge drinking, things like that.”

Student activists said Caslen was blaming the victim. But he told The State on Monday that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Absolutely, absolutely, I’m not saying (sexual assault) is the victim’s fault,” Caslen said. “Alcohol does not cause sexual assault.”

Caslen made that comment about sexual assault and alcohol because half of all sexual assaults at West Point involved alcohol use in some way, he said.

“It’s a factor that leaders have to address to create a safe environment,” said Caslen, the chair of the NCAA Commission to Combat Sexual Violence.

A widely-cited 2001 study funded by the National Institutes of Health backs up that statistic — that one-half of sexual assaults occur after either the aggressor or the victim has consumed alcohol.

“I want to apologize to those who felt that I was blaming the victim,” Caslen said. “I care deeply about victims... My comments were never intended to put blame on the victim.”

Caslen’s record on fighting sexual assault

Caslen has long made preventing sexual violence a key talking point.

In a 2016 speech to West Point cadets, he said that when he was a division commander in Iraq, he took formal action against 76 soldiers for hostile command, which included sexual assault, according to PointerView, which is West Point’s newspaper.

After the military received Congressional scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault complaints, Caslen said he hired an external organization to review West Point’s process for handling of sexual assault allegations, according to 2017 testimony Caslen made to Congress.

When Caslen had arrived at West Point, sexual assault survivors said they had faced retaliation and interrogation-style questioning after filing complaints. Caslen told Congress the school revamped its survivor advocacy program, including allowing survivors of sexual assault a sabbatical in some cases.

During that hearing, Caslen attributed the root causes of sexual assault to “toxic masculinity” — a term The New York Times defines as a hyper-macho attitude that leads to bullying, violence or bigotry.

“As we were talking about root causes, one of the ones... is what we call toxic masculinity, and it is an issue that our prevention (and) education programs will begin to address in greater detail,” Caslen testified. “Toxic masculinity is the locker room talk. It is the person who talks about his experience, and then it creates an expectation that everybody has got to replicate an experience like that when it is really not necessarily the case. And then coupled with that is force and coercion.”

While at West Point, Caslen told The State, he raised awareness of sexual assault on campus. He said he instructed all cadets to wear blue jeans on Denim Day, a worldwide awareness movement where advocates wear blue jeans because of a 1992 Italian Supreme Court decision that acquitted a man of rape because the victim was wearing tight jeans.

Facebook pictures posted April 2017 show cadets walking throughout campus in blue jeans for Denim Day.

It’s unclear whether Caslen or the three other finalists are still in the running for president. Though, Caslen is rethinking whether he even wants the job, he said.

“After what I experienced last Friday, who would want to go back to an environment like that?” Caslen said of the protests. “We live in a world where it doesn’t matter what’s true, it matters how much support you can generate.”

Caslen expressed frustration because he said none of the student protesters had contacted him to ask him to clarify his remarks before opposing his candidacy.

“No one even came to ask me what the truth was,” Caslen said.

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