As the University of South Carolina prepared to consider four finalists for the school’s next president, students, alumni, faculty and members of the public had a clear favorite on who should be picked.
William F. Tate, the dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis, received 91 percent favorable comments, according to copies of public comments obtained Friday by The State through the Freedom of Information Act.
The other two finalists were John S. Applegate, professor and executive vice president for university academic affairs in the Indiana University System and Joseph “Jay” Walsh Jr., vice president for research at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Comments on Tate mostly focused on his presence as a public speaker, his engagement with students and his diverse resume.
“William Tate was very personable and informative during the forum,” one commenter wrote (names were redacted). “I love how he didn’t just spit answers at students but turned it into an interactive conversation by challenging what they said in an effort to get the best answer.”
The 8 percent of comments on Tate that were negative largely acknowledged his public speaking prowess, but opposed him as president because they said he was trying to spread himself too thin.
“I heard a message of trying to be all things to all people,” one commenter wrote. “To do this you have to dilute the quality, not enhance it.”
In total, USC received 435 comments on either the search process generally or on specific finalists.
Despite the comments, none of the finalists got the job. After backlash over the university’s search process, particularly that the search included no female finalists, USC reopened the search and named USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly as the school’s interim president.
Commenters also spoke on the search process as a whole. Of those 57 comments, 81 percent chided USC for the lack of a female finalist.
One particularly memorable quote: “I have seen more diversity in a bowl of vanilla ice cream.”
Though Tate was the most popular candidate, he wasn’t the subject of most of the comments. That was Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, who received 324 comments.
The lion’s share of comments about Caslen were negative. Many focused on the fact that he didn’t have a doctoral degree; whether his 43 years in the Army would make him the right fit; and his comments about alcohol and sexual assault, though those comments may have been taken out of context, according to a previous article from The State.
“He did not appear to appreciate the significant differences between running West Point and running our university,” one commenter wrote. “Caslen strikes me as a good person with impressive accomplishments, but not someone even close to being prepared to lead this university. Compared to other candidates, especially Tate, who was very impressive yesterday, it is difficult to see a serious argument in favor of Caslen. Please do not hire him.”
Many of those who came to Caslen’s defense likened his closeness with West Point cadets to Pastides’ closeness with Gamecocks.
“With him as superintendent, the Academy thrived and the morale of the cadets soared,” wrote one candidate who claimed to have had family who attended West Point during Caslen’s tenure. “They adored the superintendent, giving him fun and loving nicknames, always trying to take pictures with him and cheering extra loud on game days when he rode into Michie Stadium on a motorcycle.”
Both supporters and opponents emphasized the importance of diversity. Opponents found his answers on diversity uninspiring while proponents thought just the opposite.
West Point is set to graduate the largest class of African-American and Hispanic female cadets in the school’s history, according to an article in USA TODAY. Those cadets were recruited while Caslen was still the school’s superintendent.
“Diversity doesn’t happen by itself,” Caslen told The State. “You have to work at it hard.”
Caslen apparently had some key supporters in state government.
When Caslen applied for the job, he used as a reference Wes Hayes, the chairman of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, which oversees the state’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities.
“I thought he’d make an excellent president,” Hayes told The State. “I can’t say that I was pushing for him, because I didn’t even know he applied.”
Hayes and the commission did not have a direct say in the presidential search, Hayes said.
Caslen also had the support of Gov. Henry McMaster’s office. After USC reopened the presidential search, McMaster called Caslen to ask him to consider reapplying, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.
Caslen said Friday he is still considering whether he would reapply and said nobody has reached out to him since McMaster asked him to reapply.
Here is a summary of how each finalist did. Note that percentages may not equal 100 percent because of rounding:
Caslen: 324 total comments
- 13 percent favorable
- 86 percent negative
- 1 percent neutral/mixed
Tate: 86 total comments
- 91 percent favorable
- 8 percent negative
- 1 percent neutral/mixed
Walsh: 35 total responses
- 49 percent positive
- 43 percent negative
- 9 percent neutral/mixed
Applegate: 19 total comments
- 74 percent positive
- 21 percent positive
- 5 percent neutral/mixed