Opinion Extra

Op-ed: Did USC miss an opportunity by not hiring Caslen?

USC students protest presidential finalist Robert L. Caslen

About 75 USC students protested presidential finalist Robert L. Caslen at midday Friday, April 26. The USC board of trustees was considering four finalists Friday.
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About 75 USC students protested presidential finalist Robert L. Caslen at midday Friday, April 26. The USC board of trustees was considering four finalists Friday.

Recently, the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees let it be known that Bob Caslen, the former superintendent at West Point, was a leading candidate to become the next president of the university. He was invited to campus to meet with students and faculty and interview with the board.

The board was seeking an “outside the box” candidate to tackle tough challenges that lie ahead. Many on the board apparently felt that Mr. Caslen was the right person to lead USC. His visit didn’t turn out as expected.

A small number of students and some members of the faculty protested, first because there were no female finalists. Later, protesters asserted that Mr. Caslen’s comment at a town hall meeting that alcohol is a factor in sexual assaults (in fact, most campus sexual assaults involve alcohol use by either the perpetrator or the victim, or both) suggested that he was blaming victims. A few added that he seemed “distant and authoritative.”

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For the record, few university presidents over the last decade have fought harder than Mr. Caslen to combat sexual assault on campuses. Mr. Caslen led the fight not only at West Point, but also as co-chair of the NCAA National Commission to Eliminate Sexual Violence on College Campuses Across America. So how, exactly, does a person who has been a national leader in the fight against sexual assaults on campuses get accused of blaming the victims?

Under Mr. Caslen’s leadership, Forbes magazine named West Point the No. 1 public college in the country, and US News and World Report named West Point the No. 1 public liberal arts college in the nation. So how, exactly, does a principled and accomplished leader who successfully led one of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, wind up with this outcome at USC?

Earlier this year, Mr. Caslen was presented the NCAA’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award, recognizing a “distinguished citizen of national reputation and outstanding accomplishment.” The NCAA noted that Mr. Caslen “revered his cadets and they reciprocated.” Students at West Point called Mr. Caslen “Supe Daddy” as a term of endearment. So much for “distant and authoritative.”

Where do the leadership of USC and Mr. Caslen now stand?

Mr. Caslen has received several personal calls apologizing for what happened, including a recent call from Governor McMaster in which he asked Mr. Caslen to reapply for the position. Mr. Caslen’s public statements indicate he doesn’t plan to do so. If anyone thinks he might be shying from a fight, this is the same man who, on 9/11, charged back into the burning Pentagon to help survivors of the attack and re-establish communications with the White House.

Later this month, Mr. Caslen will be back at West Point to receive the Distinguished Graduate Award. His nomination was supported by 60 letters of endorsement from current and former Secretaries of State, other former cabinet secretaries, current and former ambassadors, a host of U.S. senators and congressmen, many of America’s most senior military leaders, a Fortune 50 CEO, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and the cadet leaders from the Class of 2019.

As the USC Board of Trustees relaunches their search for a president, the many stakeholders of this fine university will be left to wonder if they have missed a great opportunity, and what might have been.

Sloan D. Gibson is the sixth deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs; 22nd president and CEO of the USO; and is a 1975 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He lives in Mount Pleasant.