Before incoming University of South Carolina President Robert Caslen can start beating Clemson University or advancing the school’s national profile, he has to mend some bridges with faculty and students.
That was the message Caslen delivered Monday, at his first press conference since being named USC’s next president.
To start, Caslen spent part of his weekend reading the hundreds of public comments from students, faculty and alumni, the majority of which were critical of his then-candidacy, according to a previous article from The State.
“Any inflated opinion of myself was quickly deflated, and it was healthy,” said Caslen, who will start Aug. 1 and be paid an annual salary of $650,000.
“Leadership, as I’ve come to learn throughout my career, isn’t all about taking action,” Caslen said. “It’s about listening, and questioning, and collaborating and learning, so that the actions that we take are well-informed and are in the best interest of the entire organization.”
Before the press conference, Caslen met with a group of 15 student leaders and asked about their concerns and for some advice, said Jawaun McClam, a senior geography major who attended the meeting.
“He seems open,” McClam said. “He seems genuinely concerned.”
Caslen’s appointment as USC president was controversial for two main reasons. For one, some students and faculty believed his military experience — including being the superintendent of U.S. Military Academy at West Point — didn’t qualify him to lead a public, civilian institution like USC.
The second source of controversy was Gov. Henry McMaster’s involvement in the presidential search, where he pressured board members to cast an up or down vote on Caslen while many students and faculty were away from school.
McMaster pressuring the board of trustees to cast a vote on Caslen has drawn a formal inquiry from USC’s accrediting agency, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), for possible “undue influence,” according to a previous article from The State.
Caslen shares student, faculty and alumni concerns that accreditation could be threatened, he said. One possible solution would be to hire an outside, non-profit group to review the board of trustees’ practices and recommend changes.
This would be an “opportunity to relay back to SACS” that USC takes seriously how its board makes major decisions, such as selecting a president.
Board Chair John Von Lehe said he would “absolutely” welcome an outside firm to audit how the board operates.
Reviewing the governance structure “was due whether or not there was a SACS inquiry or not,” Von Lehe said.
“Right now, the thing now is to give SACS all the information they want,” Von Lehe said.
Caslen’s vision for USC
Caslen’s plans for the university include more than just smoothing over tensions. Broadly speaking, his two other main priorities were raising the profile of USC and beating Clemson.
To raise the profile of the university, he wants to boost the schools’ rankings, improve diversity and bolster research, he said.
Asked how he could improve the school’s rankings, he said he would improve retention rates, graduation rates and improve job placement rates.
Asked how he would improve diversity, he said he will require the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to report directly to him and attend events held by minority student groups, he said.
To improve the school’s academic standing, he emphasized the need to have the right provost to replace Joan Gabel, who recently took over as president of the University of Minnesota.
As for athletics, he’ll reward any USC team that can beat Clemson, whether it’s the debate team or the football team, by having them over to the president’s house for sundaes.
“We’re going to learn to beat Clemson. I guarantee you that,” Caslen said.
When Caslen became West Point superintendent in July 2013, rival Navy had beaten the Black Knights 11 straight years in football. The streak was broken in 2016, and Army has now won three straight.
To get to know the students better, he believes in the concept of “management by wandering around.”
By that, he means walking on campus and talking to students on the Horseshoe, on their way to class or at the Russell House student center.
Yes, that even means visiting Five Points on a weekend night.
“I’ll drink a beer with them,” Caslen said.
Why the rush?
One of the key unanswered questions in the presidential search was why the board felt the need to act so quickly in naming Caslen USC’s next president.
In April, Caslen had essentially moved on from USC and was at another college (he didn’t say which one) and was just days away from signing a contract and accepting a job when he received a call asking if he was still interested in being USC’s next president.
“One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked in this process is the opportunity to keep Gen. Caslen in the (finalist) pool and also have other people proposed was not a possibility,” Von Lehe said.
Asked why he returned to USC amid controversy over his candidacy, he said:
“Frankly, that’s a question I’ve asked myself many times,” Caslen said. He chose USC because he wanted to continue working with students, he said.
“This next generation inspires me,” Caslen said. “They’re eager to engage and they are eager to make a difference in the world.”