Education

McMaster forces vote on controversial USC presidential finalist while students are away

USC students protest presidential finalist Robert L. Caslen

About 75 USC students protested presidential finalist Robert L. Caslen at midday Friday, April 26. The USC board of trustees was considering four finalists Friday.
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About 75 USC students protested presidential finalist Robert L. Caslen at midday Friday, April 26. The USC board of trustees was considering four finalists Friday.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has successfully pressured the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees to cast a vote on a controversial candidate for president, said Trustee Charles H. Williams.

McMaster has called every member of the school’s board of trustees pressuring them to support former West Point Superintendent Robert L. Caslen to be the next president of USC, Williams said.

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A vote is scheduled for this Friday at 10 a.m., Williams said.

“(McMaster) has met with some board members and said if they didn’t call a meeting he would,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

“This political pressure, it ain’t right,” Williams said.

USC’s longest serving board of trustees member, Eddie Floyd, supported the governor’s involvement and said he will vote in favor of Caslen at Friday’s meeting.

“I think the governor being involved is very good,” Floyd said. “He has a strong history with the university.”

Caslen was one of four finalists selected in April to replace Harris Pastides as the school’s president. Some people complained that none of the finalists were women, and three were white. Caslen was believed to be the leading candidate.

Facing protests from students saying they did not want Caslen as president, USC’s board of trustees reopened the presidential search and named USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly as interim president. The failed search cost the university $137,000, according to a previous article from The State.

During the protest, students voiced concerns about Caslen’s role in the Iraq War, his support for Contras in Nicaragua and that he did not possess a doctorate degree, according to a previous article from The State.

Students also seized on Caslen’s comments regarding the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault. While some students interpreted his comments as blaming the victim, those comments may have been taken out of context, according to a previous article from The State.

McMaster’s move received blow back from community figures such as students and politicians.

“I’ve avoided talking about the presidential search but this makes me sick,” former USC Student Body President Taylor Wright tweeted Tuesday after the news broke. “Ignoring the very serious and credible concerns of the majority of the students, faculty and staff is wrong on every level.”

As student body president, Wright served on the presidential search committee, where he was a voting member. He served on the board of trustees, where he served as a non-voting member.

Lyric Swinton, a senior sports management major who helped lead protests against Caslen in April, said she was “disappointed, but not surprised.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin tweeted: “Really Governor?!! Wonderful for transparency and inspiring confidence in our young leaders.”

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who said he was “very disappointed and very upset” about the governor’s push to force a vote on Caslen’s presidency, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon:

“The Board of Trustees have already determined their own process for choosing the best possible candidate for the job by extending their search, and I see no reason for the governor to pressure them to alter this,” Jackson said in the statement. “I hope that the board will have the courage to do what’s right, and follow their own process. The governor should be reminded that the president of the University of South Carolina is not a cabinet position.”

This is not the first time McMaster has vouched for Caslen. Shortly after USC reopened the presidential search, McMaster called Caslen and encouraged him to reapply for the position — but did not call the other three candidates, according to the Post and Courier of Charleston.

A sitting governor is automatically considered the ex-officio chair of USC’s board of trustees. However, It’s unusual for McMaster to personally intervene in USC affairs. McMaster has not attended a USC board of trustee meeting while governor, according to USC board of trustee minutes.

Rather, he appointed Greenville investment banker C. Dan Adams to vote in his stead. Adams and his companies gave $151,484 to McMaster’s 2018 primary and general campaigns, according to a previous article from The State.

“I’m not a Caslen fan,” Williams said. “I think we can do better.”

Asked why, Williams cited the high percentage of negative comments made about Caslen in the university’s public feedback process.

“Why we need to pick someone who was opposed by 82 percent of the faculty and students is beyond me,” Williams said.

The timing of McMaster’s push comes as students and faculty are away for the summer. Williams thinks that’s intentional.

“He’s trying to get it done quickly. He’s trying to get this done when the students and faculty are on summer vacation,” Williams said.

Current USC President Harris Pastides was also named president in the summer, on July 11, 2008, according to The State’s archives. Pastides, however, was not met with protests when he was named a finalist.

Williams said McMaster is leaning on Caslen, not because of a personal relationship, but because of Caslen’s ability to fund-raise.

“When Henry (McMaster) called me, I asked if he even met Caslen and he said he hadn’t,” Williams said. “He thought (Caslen) could get us a lot of money from the federal government.”

Fundraising was one of Caslen’s main selling points. While at West Point, one of his key fundraising efforts was securing $600 million to renovate campus dorms.

When The State asked board of trustee Chair John Von Lehe Tuesday morning if the the governor has been calling trustees about Caslen, he said, “It would just not be appropriate for me to comment.”

Asked if there were any meetings or official board matters scheduled in regards to the presidential search, Von Lehe declined to comment.

The State reached out to McMaster’s office. Caslen did not respond to several calls seeking comment.

It’s unclear whether Caslen would even want the job. After facing protests, Caslen told The State in April, “After what I experienced...who would want to go back to an environment like that?”

Caslen, 65, is the same age as Pastides. That’s a concern for Williams, who wants to see USC’s next president serve more than just a few years.

“We don’t need a president for two years. We need a president with vision,” Williams said. “We need another Harris Pastides.”

Williams expects the next round of searching for a president to yield even more qualified candidates, he said. That’s because some likely thought former USC Provost Michael Amiridis was a “shoe-in,” but since he was not among the finalists, others who want the job may think they have a chance, Williams said.

Amiridis did apply for the job, but withdrew his application after all applications had been submitted, Williams said.

Robert Caslen, Jr. addresses faculty, students and alumni during a forum inside Ernest F. Hollings Library at UofSC Tuesday April 23, 2019, in Columbia, SC.

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