UofSC board member says at request of Gov. McMaster, vote on controversial presidential candidate coming Friday

Published: Jul. 9, 2019 at 6:57 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The USC Board of Trustees will vote this week on a previously controversial presidential finalist at the request of Governor Henry McMaster, according to board member Charles Williams.

Williams said the vote on Robert Caslen, one of four finalists from earlier this spring, will take place on Friday at 10 a.m. Caslen was heavily criticized by some students and faculty members for comments he made during a presidential forum that binge drinking contributes to sexual assault. He previously served as the superintendent at West Point from 2013 to 2018, most recently working at the University of Central Florida as a retired three-star Army general.

In April, the board voted to continue its search for university president, naming USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly as the interim president. During discussions leading up to the vote, dozens of students filled the first floor of the alumni center chanting against the selection of Caslen.

Some students on campus said they woke up Tuesday to a flurry of text messages and posts on social media about the news and are disappointed in the decision to renew Caslen as a finalist for the university’s president.

“If he’s the new president I think it’s just going to be a dark day in our university’s history,” said student Lyric Swinton, who helped organize students during the protests earlier this year.

“The fact that you’re bringing a candidate back that has been clearly and decisively been made known that we don’t want made president is quite honestly a slap in the face,” Markos Hurtt, who graduated in May, said.

Other students and faculty said they disagree with Governor McMaster’s decision to ask the board chairman to call for the Friday vote. While they agree he should have some say, they said politics shouldn’t drown out the other trustee’s voices.

“This is showing no regard for the relationship between the board of trustees, the governor and the constituents of the university,” Bethany Bell, an associate professor said. “It totally knocked us over this morning when we heard it. I’m going on my 12th year here and this is unheard-of.”

Bell said one of the faculty’s long term goals is examining the board of trustees and said to promote real change, the makeup of the board must change.

Trustee Williams said the announcement signifies a “sad day” for the University of South Carolina.

“We have a process and the governor is trying to come in and torpedo the process and put in an unpopular candidate,” Trustee Williams said. “Why pick a controversial candidate when there are some other good candidates out there. I don’t know what the governor is up to, I don’t know if it’s a power trip or what, but it’s wrong.”

Governor McMaster’s office declined to comment on the board’s upcoming vote and Caslen was not reachable for comment.

Some students, too afraid to speak publicly, reached out on social media and said they represent the “silent majority” of students at the university who welcome Caslen’s skillset and leadership within the military to the Columbia campus. Some added they were embarrassed by the actions taken by some fellow students during the protests in April. Williams said the protests were not a factor in the board’s decision, as it focused on qualifications and feedback it received from both students and faculty.

“Of the 600 pages of comments we received based on the presidential forum, 82 percent of the comments were negative toward Caslen,” Williams said. “The board was kind of split down the middle on him when we met in April.”

Caslen will need a majority of the votes to be named president and still has the option to turn down the job.

“I’m flabbergasted as to why someone would want to come here if you only get the support of saying a little more than half of the trustees,” Bell said. “You’d be walking into a hostile environment off the bat.”

Both students and faculty plan to meet separately ahead of Friday’s vote to discuss what further action can be taken moving forward.

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