Many USC Caslen supporters have been quiet this week. Some say this is why.

Published: Jul. 12, 2019 at 6:36 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) -Supporters of embattled USC presidential finalist Robert Caslen are speaking out, one day after a judge blocked a controversial vote requested by Governor Henry McMaster asking the university’s board of trustees to vote on Caslen as the school’s next president.

After learning Caslen was being brought back into the conversation surrounding the presidency, Anthony Abate, a rising junior at the university, sat pleasantly surprised at his Florida home.

“As far as the board deciding not to vote back in April, I think we spent a lot of time and money going through four candidates and not to vote on any of them is completely unacceptable,” Abate said. “It was honestly shameful for not just how General Caslen was treated, but how the three other finalists were treated. I love my school, but I think that was a black eye for our school that we treated our people that way.”

Abate said he wasn’t in town during the board vote, which was met with a few dozen protestors, demanding the board not vote for Caslen. In April, protestors told WIS they took exception to comments made by Caslen during a presidential forum, in which he spoke about binge drinking and its connection to campus sexual assaults. They also said Caslen wasn’t qualified because he does not hold a terminal degree, despite receiving two masters degrees in industrial engineering and business administration.

“If I remember correctly, it was 75 protestors, there are 34,000 students at the University of South Carolina and I can tell you 75 people don’t speak for all of us here,” he said. “It’s not that I think their opinions don’t matter, but I don’t the process stops for 75 students.”

Charles Williams, a board of trustees member, said the decision to not vote on any of the four finalists had little to do with the student protests. Instead, he said it came down to qualifications of all the candidates and whether they were the best fit for the job.

Abate said he’s been disappointed to see headlines dominated by those opposing Caslen, but admits many of his supporters are afraid to speak out in fear of backlash.

“People I know have texted me, some have spoken anonymously and they’re all terrified to speak publicly because they fear how they’ll be treated moving forward,” he said. “People even in student government will not speak because they’re afraid someone will see their name, they’ll never hear the end of it, they’ll be harassed and I’m shocked that there are some student leaders who feel that way and it’s really unfortunate we’ve gotten to that point.”

JD Jacobus, a rising junior at USC, is at home in Rock Hill for the summer. He has long supported Caslen and said the week’s events are a direct result of the board of trustee’s inaction in April.

“The biggest thing I’m dissatisfied about is the board did not confirm him back during spring semester, they bowed down to the mob then and now they’re reaping what they sowed,” Jacobus said. “They should have confirmed him then and now it’s going to be even worse.”

Jacobus said he’s decided to speak publicly in support of Caslen because he’s tired of fellow classmates and faculty members assassinating Caslen’s character.

“We know that if we come out in support of him, they’re going to try to bastardize us, use it against us, paint us as racists and sexists and all these terrible things that just aren’t true,” he said. “It’s really sad that the climate at USC has become this extreme that just supporting someone for president can make you out to be an evil person.”

After watching Thursday’s press conference held by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, Jacobus said some of his fellow classmates protesting Caslen and the governor’s actions are hypocritical.

“They’ve gone on and on about how they don’t want it to be political, but then they have Mayor Benjamin and Senator Jackson come speak at an event at the state house, I’ve never seen more hypocrisy, it’s laughable.”

Students and faculty on the other side of the issue have said they are opposing Governor McMaster’s hand in the board’s process and said Thursday’s press conference is not about any particular candidate, but the legality of the process itself.

“It sends a message loud and clear to students, faculty and staff of the University of South Carolina that the governor of South Carolina and the board of trustees do not care about your voice and are not listening to you,” said Taylor Wright, the USC student body president said.

During the press conference, Benjamin and Sen. Darrell Jackson called on the board to cancel the vote and continue with its ongoing search.

“I am really disappointed in his effort to do this and I think to circumvent the process is totally unnecessary, he has literally undercut the board,” Sen. Jackson said.

Other students on campus said while they initially opposed Caslen as a candidate, they’re focused now on the process by which he could be voted president. As of Friday, the meeting has not been rescheduled by the board of trustees.

“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,” said Markos Hurtt, who graduated in May.

On Thursday, Governor McMaster sent a letter to the board of trustees, asking it to reschedule the meeting in the “near term.” His office said the letter was drafted before the court ordered injunction was put in place. On Friday, the Office of the Attorney General weighed in on the legality of the meeting, agreeing five days’ notice must be given to trustees.

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