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Caslen hopes Army leadership experience lands him new job

U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. speaks at his retirement ceremony at West Point, June 22, 2018.

MATTHEW MOELLER/U.S. ARMY

By LUCAS DAPRILE | The State (Columbia, S.C.) | Published: April 25, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — The latest finalist to be the University South Carolina’s next president for the job at the school’s third of four public forums.

Wednesday’s finalist was Robert L. Caslen, the former superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Finalist John S. Applegate will be on campus Thursday for the fourth and final presidential forum. Finalist Joseph “Jay” Walsh’s forum was held Monday and William F. Tate’s was held on Tuesday.

The public sessions are being held at 3:30 p.m. in the Program Room of the Ernest F. Hollings Library.

USC’s board of trustees meets Friday and could decide on the school’s next president then.

Here are five takeaways from Caslen’s forum:

1. Who is Robert L. Caslen?

The first thing one notices about Caslen is his military background. Even when he’s not in uniform, he walks straight, like he’s at parade rest. The way he talks sounds like an intelligence briefing or an Army football pep talk.

But before Connecticut-born Caslen joined the military, he lived in a Vermont ski lodge as a teenager and later was recruited to West Point to play football, he said.

Today, he has three sons and four grandchildren. His sons are continuing his family’s military/public service legacy (Caslen’s father fought in WWII): one is an FBI agent who tracks domestic terrorists; another is a firefighter and the third is a captain in the Army, Caslen said.

Fun fact: while he was superintendent of West Point, students gave him the nickname “Supe Daddy,” according to an 2018 article in Army Times.

2. Vision for USC

Much like Walsh, who held his public forum on Monday, Caslen was slim on the details of his vision in favor of promising to listen to others.

“I will listen,” Caslen said. “The fact that I have not had a career in academic education ... the fact that I don’t have a terminal degree is going to force me to listen.”

However, he did say he wants to boost USC’s nationwide ranking in publications such as Forbes, U.S. News and World Report and more. What’s more, he cited his experience at West Point successfully lobbying Congress for, among other funds, a $600 million renovation of campus dorms.

3. Best quote

“Being in the U.S. Army for 43 years, I like to say I have a PhD in leadership,” said Caslen, who holds two master’s degrees, but no doctorates.

4. What students are saying

“I feel like he is very qualified,” said Stewart Mast, a sophomore biology major. However, “I’d be concerned about his fit for this university.”

For example, when a student asked Caslen about his experience in promoting environmental sustainability on campus, he said his job at West Point was to “sustain” students as they grew on campus and became military leaders.

“We (do) transition students into leaders, but not military leaders,” said Lauryn Workman, a sophomore history major who has attended all three public forums for the presidential finalists. “I think that while he is qualified because of his role as the head of a college, I don’t think he has the experience needed to lead USC.”

Graham McLaughlin, a freshman public health major, agreed.

“I think this environment needs to be more open and adaptive to a wide array of students” than at West Point, McLaughlin said.

5. One leadership thing

Caslen told a story about how when he was serving in Iraq an officer under his command used his smarts and people skills to broker peace in the Iraqi city Balad.

One of the issues that affected everyday Iraqis after Saddam Hussein’s government collapsed was the inability to access banking. One of Caslen’s subordinates noticed this was a problem and convinced two wealthy Iraqis to pool their money and use it as a local bank for the people, Caslen said.

Soon enough, farmers returned to their land because they were able to borrow money; motels went up; markets popped up in the city; the city fixed its infrastructure and the city began to rebuild, Caslen said.

“He had the intellect to understand where the opportunity exists ... and he had the interpersonal skills to make it happen,” Caslen said.

©2019 The State (Columbia, S.C.)
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