Politics & Government

Special SC State House committee to review controversial hiring of USC President Caslen

S.C. Senate President Harvey Peeler created a special committee Monday to look into the controversial hiring of new University of South Carolina President Robert Caslen this summer.

But Peeler, a Cherokee Republican who called the search process “embarrassing,” appointed one of Caslen’s most vocal supporters in the State House as the committee’s chairman.

Peeler created the panel at the request of state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Richland Democrat who was critical of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s involvement in Caslen’s hiring.

Jackson said he wants to interview USC trustees and some governor’s office staffers to publicly reveal the extent of McMaster’s influence. The committee’s findings could be useful in a future Senate debate on a proposal by Peeler to restructure USC’s board, Jackson said.

“It appeared to those of us looking from the outside to be very chaotic, not organized and – some folks may think – heavy handed with political influence,” Jackson said of the presidential search process. “It looked embarrassing to the university and embarrassing to the state of South Carolina.”

USC’s board voted 11-8 to hire Caslen in July despite protests from faculty, some students and politicians who called into question the former West Point superintendent’s qualifications and the governor’s involvement in his hiring.

In April, the board declined to pick Caslen — or anyone else — as its next president as scores of students protested the retired Army lieutenant general‘s selection outside its doors. The trustees then revisited that vote this summer, as students were away, after McMaster called every member of the board and urged them to support Caslen.

The Senate committee that will review the process includes lawmakers on both sides of the debate.

Its chairman, state Sen. Greg Gregory, is a Lancaster Republican and former USC board member who publicly supported Caslen’s hiring.

“The process is over,” Gregory said Monday. “The president has been selected. I think he is off to a good start, but we’ll look into the search and selection to see how it can be improved going forward.”

Another Republican on the panel, state Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington, told The State she isn’t sure why the committee is necessary.

“I think it’s a done deal and we should just move forward,” Shealy said. “We’re just stirring up ground here. I don’t think we’re going to go back and undo anything that’s been done.”

The committee also includes Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, a former USC student body president and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, a USC School of Law graduate whose district includes USC.

Peeler, who created it, said he thinks USC’s board made the right decision in hiring Caslen, but that he is still concerned about the process that led to the selection.

“(This is) absolutely not a witch hunt committee,” Peeler said. “It’s a fact-finding committee.”

The governor’s office declined to comment.

Gregory said the committee will probably hold its first hearing in November and schedule follow-up meeting as necessary.

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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