Robert Caslen started off with a story.
Before he was chosen to be the president of the University of South Carolina, he used to oversee high-stress training for the Army. In all of the groups that succeeded, Caslen noticed some patterns: the low-ranking soldiers felt comfortable talking with the officers, the leaders didn’t humiliate their subordinates for taking an unsuccessful risk, and the soldiers trusted their leaders to do the right thing.
“You can be No. 1 in your class... but if you fail in character you fail in leadership,” Caslen said.
Caslen told that story Thursday to a room of more than 100 women at USC’s law school who assembled to hear their new president speak on his first day in office. That meeting, organized by Professional Women on Campus, was his first of several meetings with students, faculty and more.
During that meeting, Caslen was asked about everything from football to the school of medicine to equal pay. During that, he also shared more about his plans for USC.
When an audience member asked if he supports equal pay for men and women, he said that he did.
“If it’s not equitable here at USC, I want to know that,” Caslen said.
Caslen’s responses elicited nods and periodic applause from the room.
“I’m glad to hear he’s concerned about demographics in faculty and staff instead of just students,” said Ali Mathwig, an academic advisor in the honors college. “His path to success will be talking to the right people.”
As for diversity, Caslen said he will increase staffing in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and said his most important criteria for a new provost — a university’s top academic official who oversees curriculum, accreditation and setting faculty hiring policies — is someone who is a “competent, diverse candidate.”
Caslen has promised to prioritize diversity, something he believes yields tangible results.
“Our most effective tool (in Iraq) was understanding other cultures,” said Caslen, a retired three-star general and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Later Thursday, Caslen was also scheduled to meet with USC’s chief diversity officer John Dozier, members of the My Carolina Alumni Association, students, incoming Faculty Senate Chair Mark Cooper and athletics officials, said USC spokesman Jeff Stensland.
After a contentious presidential search — which involved several protests, a unanimous vote of “no confidence” from the Faculty Senate and a divided board of trustees vote — Caslen has been trying to build bridges. Since his election, he has met with students, some of whom protested his candidacy. He has promised to place two faculty members in charge of the search for a provost.
“I thought he was very professional. He has a lot of leadership background,” said La Trice Small, the assistant director of assessment. “I can sense almost like a strategy where there will be more of a culture of accountability.”
As the event drew to a close, Caslen could be seen taking a selfie with one of the people who showed up, a move reminiscent of outgoing USC President Harris Pastides.
“I have huge shoes to fill,” Caslen said. “I almost choked up saying goodbye to (Pastides) because of how much of a legend the guy is around here.”