Education

USC students want politics out of the school’s presidential search

Watch: USC Student Government forum discusses upcoming Caslen vote

The University of South Carolina Board of Trustees will vote on candidate Robert Caslen's presidency Friday. Students gathered Wednesday to share their thoughts with the student body president, who will represent them.
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The University of South Carolina Board of Trustees will vote on candidate Robert Caslen's presidency Friday. Students gathered Wednesday to share their thoughts with the student body president, who will represent them.

University of South Carolina students don’t want politicians telling them who their next president should be.

That was the message students sent at a Wednesday forum on campus.

The forum was scheduled after news broke that Gov. Henry McMaster successfully pressured USC’s board of trustees to schedule a vote on Friday on whether to elect Robert Caslen,the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as the school’s next president.

“Our opinion about Caslen was shown in April and May,” student Sawyer McDuffie said. “We’re really here to tell the Governor to stop what he’s doing.

“When we found out about this we felt betrayed and blindsided.”

Caslen was one of four presidential finalists in the school’s search for a replacement for Harris Pastides. After the board of trustees could not come to a unified decision, it reopened the search and named USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly interim president.

“I wasn’t caring much who Caslen was,” Senior English major Alexander Kroll said of the April protests. “What got me out here is this was kept hidden...and the only reason we’re out here is because it leaked. And that’s disgusting.”

McMaster isn’t Caslen’s only powerful ally in Columbia. Caslen was classmates at West Point with S.C. Commission on Higher Education Chairman and former state Sen. Wes Hayes. When Caslen applied for the job, he used Hayes as a reference, Hayes told The State. But outside providing a positive review of Caslen, Hayes did not get involved in the search or decision making, he said.

Caslen received mostly negative feedback from the students, faculty, alumni and more who submitted comments to USC, according to a previous article from The State. The Black Faculty Staff Association is circulating a survey calling for feedback on McMaster’s involvement in the presidential search. As of Wednesday afternoon, the survey has 530 respondents, said Carl Wells, the president of the association.

There was a lone dissenter at the forum. Robert Cathcart, a member of the USC College Republicans supported both Caslen and McMaster’s involvement in forcing a vote.

“From all accounts, the students (at West Point) loved him,” Cathcart said of Caslen. “I believe there is no better candidate.”

Asked about McMaster’s involvement, he said, “He’s working within the system, within the process.”

The forum was predominantly students, but not entirely.

“In my 30 years in higher education I’ve never seen a governor intervene in a presidential search for a flagship university,” said Lois Duke Whitaker, a member of the Board of visitors for College of Arts and Sciences who has taught at USC, Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Georgia Southern. “For me that was a fatal mistake as far as leadership goes.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn was the highest-ranking Democrat to weigh in, tweeting “I stand with #UofSC students and faculty calling on a transparent process that includes the input of stakeholders in selecting the next president of this great institution.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, and state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland, have also issued public statements opposing the move.

“While the vote for a new president ultimately falls upon trustees, I hope you will agree with me the selection should include the voices of as many USC stakeholders as possible,” Rose said in a letter he sent Tuesday to USC Board of Trustees Chairman John Von Lehe. “Hiring and naming Mr. Caslen the next president during these summer months sends the opposite message and could cause harm to the university that will take years, if not decades, to repair.”

From both sides of the partisan aisle, McMater’s role in the presidential search has become a political talking point. For example, McMaster’s political allies have used the issue to smear progressives.

“I fully support Governor McMaster’s efforts to provide leadership at USC,” S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis wrote on Facebook Wednesday. “These Social Justice Warriors want to redistribute our wealth and opportunities based on their Marxist ideologies and without worry about the consequences to our future. They believe in the minority rule of the angry mob, not the majority rule of the silent, hardworking, taxpaying men and women of SC.”

Conversely, political rivals took the opportunity to pounce on McMaster.

“After the GOP failed to deliver any meaningful or comprehensive education reform this year, Henry McMaster is ignoring the board of trustees, university faculty, and most importantly the students of the University of South Carolina who made their voices clear about the need for a diverse and transparent hiring process,” S.C. Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson Jr. said in a news release.

Student energy is likely to spill over into Friday, where some of those who protested against Caslen and for more diversity in the presidential search in April say they plan to protest again, according to a previous article from The State.

“This isn’t how we do things,” said student Jordan Wayburn. “You don’t do this during the summer at breakneck speed.

“I think it’s inappropriate. I think we’re better than that.”

It’s unclear what impact all of the feedback will have. On Wednesday afternoon, USC officially scheduled the 10 a.m. Friday meeting at the Pastides Alumni Center, in which the agenda listed “Presidential Election” as the only item to be considered.

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