Education

USC board wasn’t swayed by McMaster’s influence, trustee says in letter to accreditor

Students, faculty and alumni rally against USC presidential selection process

The Gamecock community gathered at the Russell House patio to voice concerns regarding Friday's vote on university presidential candidate Robert Caslen. Speakers asked the board to cancel the vote and expressed worry over loss of accreditation.
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The Gamecock community gathered at the Russell House patio to voice concerns regarding Friday's vote on university presidential candidate Robert Caslen. Speakers asked the board to cancel the vote and expressed worry over loss of accreditation.

A top University of South Carolina official has formally told the school’s accrediting body that the board of trustees was not influenced by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s involvement in the school’s presidential search.

The letter, dated July 26 and signed by board chair John Von Lehe, acknowledged McMaster called board members expressing support for incoming USC President Robert Caslen, but denied that those calls caused any board members to change their votes, according to the letter, which was obtained by The State.

“I am aware that Governor McMaster spoke with board members prior to the July 19 board meeting regarding his support of Mr. Caslen’s candidacy. There was, in fact, much conversation between all board members about Mr. Caslen and whether to move forward with a vote. I am not aware, however, of a member of the board being influenced by Governor McMaster’s expression of support,” Von Lehe wrote in the letter.

USC came under scrutiny from The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, often abbreviated SACS, after McMaster pushed for board members to cast a vote for Caslen while students and faculty were largely away from campus. SACS prohibits “undue influence,” which includes involvement from politicians.

The governor is the ex-officio chair of USC’s board by law. SACS regulations allow the governor’s influence if he is acting as a board member, which he insists he was doing. But if he used his powers as the governor to influence university matters, it could threaten USC’s accreditation, which allows it to receive federal money and lends credence to USC degrees.

Caslen, a retired three-star general and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has responded to concerns about USC’s threatened accreditation by saying he would consider hiring an outside group of experts to audit the way USC’s board operates, according to a previous article from The State.

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Von Lehe’s letter is at odds with Trustee Charles Williams, who publicly opposed McMaster’s involvement in the presidential search.

According to Williams, McMaster called every member of the board of trustees and said if the board didn’t call a vote on Caslen, then he would, according to a previous article from The State.

“Everybody in this room knows why we’re here today. Everyone knows it’s political,” Williams said at the July 19 meeting where the board voted 11-8 to approve Caslen.

Though Williams was the most outspoken against McMaster’s involvement, he wasn’t the only one to object to how the search was handled. Trustee William Hubbard voted “present” — neither for nor against Caslen — because he liked Caslen but objected to the search process, he said during the July 19 meeting.

In the letter, Von Lehe said the need to cast an urgent vote was because Caslen had a job offer elsewhere, something Caslen also mentioned in his first press conference at USC. Williams, however, did not find that to be a good reason.

“If the only reason we got to do this is Gen. Caslen might have another job, isn’t that the damn tail wagging the dog?” Williams said at the July 19 meeting. “How can you all have a knee-jerk reflex to this man saying ‘I have another job offer.’”

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