Opinion Extra

Op-ed: After Caslen vote, much work is needed for healing at USC

Caslen acknowledges difficulties in election process, but is humbled by the outcome

Incoming president of The University of South Carolina, Robert Caslen, speaks during his first press conference at the university.
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Incoming president of The University of South Carolina, Robert Caslen, speaks during his first press conference at the university.

Classes have begun at the University of South Carolina, and as students and professors returned to campus, they found that they have jumped into a new era.

Momentous change took place while they were away without their input. It seems that this was by design. While there may be no turning back, there is certainly the need to ask probing questions, get clarity, understand the process and leadership breakdown, and the lapse in ethical behavior.

On April 27, the Board of Trustees met with the result being that none of the four finalists were chosen as the next USC president. With the four finalists being male, and even the eleven semifinalists all male, students began to protest against all four candidates. One would have thought that the state’s flagship university would have had greater sensitivity and awareness in this day than to put forward such a slate of candidates that displayed a lack of regard for gender equality. Is the Carolinian Creed only applicable to students?

It seemed to many that the board got the message that the search was biased, sexist, flawed and needed to be begun again. It was like a moment of repentance. And I wanted to give the board some credit for the restart. But when Gov. Henry McMaster called for a vote on Robert Caslen in July and the board (though divided ) voted him in, one can only conclude that either they really were not concerned about the glaring gender inequality — but only momentarily embarrassed and trying to save face — or that there was political influence by McMaster. Perhaps both.

The board members who voted “no” and to stay with the process should be commended for their courage and integrity. Trustees Chuck Allen, Robert Dozier, Toney Lister, Miles Loadholt, Leah Moody, Rose Newton, Mack Whittle, and Charles Williams resisted the pressure to recant and be expedient. How can it be that such a close, divided vote should be considered as good to accept? And when just the day before the faculty senate voted “no confidence” unanimously, where is the wisdom in accepting narrow approval?

Although Caslen could have withdrawn from the process, nevertheless, he is put in a very difficult position of leading in the midst of continued unsettledness, donors suspending their gifts, an erosion of trust and distracting scrutiny. But USC’s success is now tied to his success, so he is to be wished well.

There has been the call to restructure the board, but mere restructuring does not address the issues that need to be addressed: integrity, transparency, equality, bias, etc. Restructuring is rarely transformative. There have been the mantras, “Time to heal.” “Time to move on.” But healing does not just happen. It is a process that must meet certain conditions.

Conditions for healing include becoming transparent and telling the truth. This involves admitting wrong and seeking reconciliation. Healing also requires the rebuilding of trust. It involves taking concrete steps to address the inflicted wound and to put in place a process and ethos to check future debacles and lapses of integrity, courage and leadership.

A wide range of people should be involved, from students, faculty, staff, alumni, administrators, board members and government officials. Certainly this is a teachable moment — a proverbial moment of truth. Here is a a case study to be pondered, reflected upon and learned from. There is much work to be done if healing and moving positively into the future are to take place.

The Rev. Dr. Tom Wall is United Methodist campus minister at the University of South Carolina.
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