Education

Newly released texts show extent of McMaster’s influence in USC presidential search

Newly released documents detail the extent to which S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and his staff pressed for Robert Caslen to be the next president of the University of South Carolina.

The documents show that before the USC board voted to hire Caslen on July 19, McMaster was in frequent contact with board members, used his chief of staff to push out positive information about Caslen and gave broad support to efforts to elect the retired general and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“I fully support any and all efforts to hire General Caslan [sic],” McMaster said in a June 21 text message to Trustee Dan Adams. “His potential to impact the state’s economic growth, among other qualities, makes him unique among candidates.”

McMaster’s involvement in Caslen’s hiring is important because the agency that accredits USC can take action against accreditation for “undue” political influence on the school. The agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, said this week that it continues to review USC and the governor’s involvement in Caslen’s hiring.

The review is complicated because McMaster, as governor, is an ex-officio member — a position an official gets automatically because of another position he or she holds — of the USC board. McMaster’s office said Wednesday the governor did nothing wrong.

Last week, the governor’s office and USC released the texts, emails, schedules and other documents in response to a request from The State and other media filed under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The documents include more than a dozen exchanges concerning Trey Walker, the governor’s chief of staff, pushing for Caslen.

Walker courted state Sen. Dick Harpootlian to support Caslen, saying, “I think you (Harpootlian) will have a strong ally in your Five Points efforts w/ Gen Caslen as USC president.”

To which Harpootlian replied, “Not so sure.”

Harpootlian, an attorney who lives near the Five Points shopping and commercial district, has led the fight against what he and other neighbors describe as late-night drinking and rowdiness in the area.

Caslen’s candidacy for USC president became controversial soon after he was named one of four finalists in April. Some faculty and students complained that he didn’t have a terminal degree, and some opposed his involvement in the war in Iraq.

When the board met to select the new president in late April, roughly 75 students protested Caslen’s candidacy. At the time, the board voted to continue the search and named an interim president to succeed Harris Pastides, who retired July 31.

But in July, the board called a special meeting to vote on Caslen.

In one text exchange with trustees Hugh Mobley and Thad Westbrook, Walker worried that the July 12 call for a vote on Caslen was being “purposely sabotaged.”

Walker mocked student protests, saying he’s “seen more students committed to crossing Assembly Street...”

And as a vote for Caslen seemed inevitable, Walker said opposition to Caslen may have helped the general’s cause.

“Our friends on the left played their part perfectly,” Walker said in a text to Westbrook and Mobley.

“Lot of tailwind now,” Mobley replied.

After reading a letter supporting Caslen, Walker asked if the writer would speak with the media.

“If we can’t get this info to mainstream media it doesn’t help move the chains,” Walker said.

The documents, which included hundreds of pages of emails, texts, schedules and more, show board members saw McMaster as a crucial asset in securing a successful vote for Caslen’s presidency. One board member also expressed concern about board Chairman John Von Lehe Jr.

“Governor. I’m back in the loop. I just hug [sic] up from Hugh Mobley,” said Trustee Adams in a July 9 text message. “I’ve got a few people you need to call today to shore up.”

The next day, Adams texted McMaster, saying, “You may want to assess whether you want to call John Von Lee [sic]. I talked to Hugh (Mobley) a few minutes ago, and he said he may cancel the meeting tomorrow. Can’t handle the pressure he’s getting.”

The State reported in July that McMaster had pressured the board to meet on July 12 to consider Caslen.

The July 12 meeting was eventually canceled because board members were not given notice of the meeting in the legally required time frame, according to a previous article from The State. A week later, the board voted to hire Caslen.

McMaster also passed along contact information for other trustees to Mobley, who said he was calling trustees to vote in favor of Caslen.

Westbrook also saw the governor’s office as a powerful tool in getting Caslen elected.

“Did the Gov speak to Rose (Buyck Newton)?” Westbrook asked Walker regarding his fellow trustee. “Also, Molly (Spearman) will get a call soon. Do you want to give her a heads-up and remind her the Gov needs her support?”

Spearman, as state superintendent of education, is an ex-officio USC board member.

The governor’s office has pointed out that McMaster is the ex-officio chair of the board, and was only acting as a board member in supporting Caslen.

Asked for comment, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor is standing by the statement he issued in July, which said: “To suggest that the governor, who by law is a member of the board of trustees, did anything improper is preposterous. Governor McMaster has made no secret about the fact, that as a member of the Board, he believes General Robert Caslen is supremely qualified and is perfectly suited to address the challenges ahead for the University of South Carolina.”

The governor’s role as the head of the state and a board of trustees member complicates the accreditors’ task.

“It’s a tough situation because the governor is a board member,” SACS President Belle Wheelan said this week. “When you look at board members talking to each other it’s hard to tell if it’s undue influence or just board members talking.”

SACS is looking at this latest set of documents, released through the Freedom of Information Act, to determine whether the governor and his staff’s influence on board members is worthy of action against USC’s accreditation, Wheelan said.

“We’re still looking at it,” Wheelan said.

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