Education

Emails, texts show political considerations factored in USC presidential search

Political ideology factored into discussions by some University of South Carolina board members before and after they chose Bob Caslen as the school’s president in July, according to emails and other exchanges released by USC Tuesday.

The emails and text messages sent to and from USC board members showed at least three believed they were withstanding what they saw as attacks from liberals and Democrats. They also saw an opportunity to bolster conservative and Republican positions.

Caslen’s election as USC president was controversial. He had been unanimously opposed by the school’s faculty senate and dozens of students. The board itself was sharply split, voting 11-8, with several board members complaining about Gov. Henry McMaster’s involvement. One board member abstained.

The documents released Tuesday include an exchange between McMaster’s chief of staff, Trey Walker, and USC board member Dan Adams.

“The Democrats hate us. We took their castle,” Walker said.

Replied Adams: “It’s our turn!!”

Walker referred questions to Brian Symmes, McMaster’s spokesman. “The governor has said there was absolutely no political influence,” Symmes said.

In another text exchange, board member Charles Williams bemoans McMaster’s influence in the presidential selection process. In July, Williams said McMaster had forced the board to convene a special meeting to vote on Caslen.

The governor, while saying he supported Caslen, has denied forcing the board to vote on the retired Army general and former superintendent at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In the documents released Tuesday, Williams wrote that “for the governor to force us to vote on Caslon (sic) and call board members for Caslen is just wrong.”

The message was apparently sent to another board member named Bubba, who responded.

“I watched Fox News and the radical left is trying to control all conservatives on University campuses, including our board,” Bubba responded. “I was already in favor of Caslen and when the radical left faculty and students ‘threatened’ us several members jumped ship — not me!!”

Reached on Tuesday, board member Bubba Fennell denied that he was the one who made the remark.

“I don’t recall saying anything like that, and I think I would have enough sense not to put that in an email,” Fennell said.

Fennell is the only USC board member listed as “Bubba” on the school’s website. Williams could not be reached for comment.

The exchange continued with Williams trying to convince his fellow board member the board should look at other options.

“I can promise you that we can get a great president[,] it certainly won’t be a liberal,” Williams wrote.

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Elsewhere, Williams raised concerns about the partisan politics influencing the selection process.

“The other side is doing a good job of making this liberals versus conservatives Democrats versus Republicans,” Williams writes to other board members. He said it would help if Republican legislators came out in favor of keeping the search open and not voting for Caslen.

In other exchanges between board members, several of them said they believed Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who also serves as a USC trustee, considered how voting against McMaster’s pick would impact her political future.

“I understand your political considerations but I believe in the bottom of my heart as Trustees our fiduciary duties are to the best interests of the University,” Williams wrote Spearman.

Trustee Toney Lister wrote Spearman, saying, “Now is the time to forget your future position, think about accreditation and vote against this guy.”

News reports of McMaster’s alleged involvement in forcing a vote on Caslen prompted USC’s accrediting agency to open an inquiry into whether the board was being subject to undue political influence.

Williams also wrote Spearman asking her to “Please stand up for what is right and don’t be political.”

The exchanges indicate Spearman was hesitant about Caslen in April. But in July, Spearman changed her position and supported Caslen.

In April, the USC board considered four finalists for president, including Caslen. After a daylong meeting, the board decided to continue the search and named an interim president. But the board switched course in July and voted for Caslen.

Spearman spokeperson Ryan Brown said in a statement that her vote for Caslen resulted from conversations with him about rural education needs and K-12 as well as higher education systems.

“While Governor McMaster and Superintendent Spearman maintain a positive working relationship, speak frequently, and like most elected officials agree and disagree on certain issues — she remains a statewide elected constitutional officer beholden only to the people of South Carolina and not any one individual,” Brown said. “Superintendent Spearman indicated that while Caslen was not her initial first choice, should it come down to it, she could support him. After taking the time to reach out to him and better get to know him, he won her confidence and her vote.”

In one message, Caslen himself appears to blame factors outside his resume and character for influencing the selection process. Adams, the board member, shared a text that he said came from Caslen. “My only concern is how my character is being assassinated through all this,” Caslen is quoted as saying in the message.

“All my life i have tried to live a life of character and to see it all destroyed through manipulation is about all I can take,” the message reads. “I only wish there was a counter narrative out there as the press is fully on board with these radical extremist ideas.”

USC could not be reached Tuesday afternoon for a comment from Caslen.

In a final exchange before the vote for Caslen, Williams reached out to Spearman, saying “when are you and everyone else going to understand this is not just about Caslen. It’s about following the process” and “being transparent (and) it’s about our students and our faculty and the reputation of the University. Politics have no place in interfering with board decisions.”

“God save the University,” Williams wrote to a trustee.

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.
Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
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