Accrediting body to conduct formal review of USC’s presidential search process

The University of South Carolina’s accrediting body will conduct a full, formal review of the school’s presidential search.

The issue at hand is USC’s compliance with Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) requirements that there is no “undue influence” in university matters, according a letter sent from the accrediting body’s president, Belle Wheelan, to President Robert Caslen and the chairman of USC’s board of trustees.

“After reviewing the material submitted, we have determined there is evidence of a significant accreditation-related issue,” Wheelan wrote.

The threat to USC’s accreditation has been the most severe fallout from the controversial presidential search earlier this year. A school’s accreditation allows it to access federal funds and lends credence to its degrees.

The SACS board will conduct the review in December 2019, the letter said.

USC has said it will bring in a third-party group, the Association of Governing Board of Universities and Colleges, to review “our board’s policies and practices,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email.

“The University of South Carolina and its board of trustees will continue to work with ...SACS in its examination of the presidential search process,” Stensland said. “Our institution is committed to SACS’ Principles of Accreditation, good governance and continuous improvement.”

USC’s Faculty Senate cast a “no confidence” vote against Caslen while he was a presidential candidate and cast another vote of “no confidence” against the board of trustees last week.

Caslen, a retired Army lieutenant general, was one of four men chosen in April as finalists for USC president. Many students and faculty opposed his candidacy because he doesn’t hold a terminal degree and because of his role in the war in Iraq.

In April, the USC board decided to continue the search for a successor to now former President Harris Pastides. The board also appointed an interim president.

But two months later, The State reported that Gov. Henry McMaster pressured the board to vote on Caslen. After a contentious meeting on July 19, the board voted 11-8 to hire the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. One member abstained.

The SACS formal review is “a blessing and a curse,” said Bethany Bell, an associate professor of social work and the faculty welfare committee chair on Faculty Senate. “This is what faculty and students and everyone were afraid of. At the same time, this shows the board of trustees this isn’t just students and faculty complaining.”

Bell was one of many faculty members who protested the presidential search process after McMaster became involved.

“I love the university. I hate that it’s going to be reviewed, but somebody has to be held accountable,” Bell said.

The last time SACS met, in June 2019, it took action against 16 universities from throughout the Southeast. Though none of those schools had their accreditation revoked, several were given a warning or placed on probation, SACS’ most severe punishment short of revoking accreditation, according to SACS’ website.

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