Ex-West Point superintendent Caslen is hired as University of South Carolina’s next president
By LUCAS DAPRILE | The State (Columbia, S.C.) | Published: July 19, 2019
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — A divided University of South Carolina board of trustees voted Friday to hire retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen as its next president.
After a rare contentious meeting, the school’s board of trustees rejected protests from faculty, some students and several politicians in choosing Caslen, the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The vote was 11-8. One board member abstained.
A crowd of about 80 students gathered in the Pastides Alumni Center, where the board met, began chanting “shame” minutes after the board voted.
Caslen was aware of the opposition to his candidacy and has pledged to meet with his critics and listen to them.
“I want to engage with my critics in the faculty and the students and take their advice,” Caslen said. “They’re valued members of the university and it’s important they realize that I see them that way.”
Asked how he felt to be named USC’s next president, he said, “I’m honored. I’m very grateful for those who put their trust in me.”
Caslen, who was one of four finalists announced in April, has been a controversial candidate throughout the process. Students and faculty took issue with his involvement in the Iraq War, his support for the Contras in Nicaragua, his lack of record on sustainability and his lack of a doctorate degree. His supporters said they admire his 43 years in the Army and the high rankings West Point received during his tenure.
Molly Spearman, who as state Superintendent of Education serves on the board, said that she had spoken at length with Caslen since April. “I was extremely impressed with his ideas and vision,” she said.
She believes he will relate well to all students from throughout South Carolina. Spearman also said Caslen talked about how he would overcome opposition to his selection, and he vowed to soon meet with those opposed to him.
But board member Charles William passionately urged his colleagues not to vote for Caslen. He criticized the process that brought board members together Friday, blaming Gov. Henry McMaster for his involvement.
“We’re going to destroy this university,” he said.
McMaster issued a statement praising Caslen’s selection, calling it “a positive and transformative step forward for the future of the university and the state. I am confident that every student, alumnus, faculty member and citizen of this state will benefit from his superior leadership, vision and direction, which he has demonstrated throughout his remarkable career.”
While Williams pushed back on the board for what he said was rushing a vote on Caslen, other board members said time was of the essence.
“This man, this great man, will be gone if we do not offer him immediately,” said Trustee Richard Jones said. “I think we would be losing an excellent leader.”
Students who opposed Caslen protested and the board reopened the search in April — which cost USC $137,000 — naming USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly as interim president. Though, several board members have stated publicly the protests did not play a role in their decision to reopen the search.
After the search was reopened, the board made no public moves toward appointing a new search committee nor retaining a new search firm. That was until earlier this month when it came to light that McMaster was pressuring board members to hold a vote for Caslen. Shortly after, a board meeting was scheduled for July 12, but was moved back by a court order.
McMaster’s involvement drew outrage from Democratic politicians, students, alumni and faculty.
But unlike the first round of protests against Caslen, these protests weren’t limited to primarily students. USC’s accrediting body, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, has sent the school a former letter asking for answers on McMaster’s involvement and warning that “undue influence” could affect USC’s accreditation, which allows the school to receive federal funds and lends legitimacy to the school’s degrees. The American Association of University Professors could sanction the school for approving Caslen against a unanimous vote of “no confidence” from USC’s Faculty Senate.
“I’m fundamentally disappointed in this board,” said Todd Shaw, an associate professor of political science. “Despite opposition from all constituencies of this university, the board decided the governor’s vote means more.”
©2019 The State (Columbia, S.C.)
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