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Charlotte Area News

University Of South Carolina Hires Retired General With Trump Ties


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Trustees at the University of South Carolina ended a divisive search for a new president by hiring a retired Army general with ties to President Donald Trump.

Shortly after Friday's 11-8 vote to hire Robert Caslen, students and others who had been silently protesting outside the board room began shouting "Shame!"

Student and faculty leaders had opposed Caslen because they said he was unqualified for the post and knew little about the school. The university's top two living donors asked trustees not to vote Friday, worried the process had become too political.

The vote came three months after Caslen was named one of four finalists for the job, but the board voted unanimously to reopen the search. Gov. Henry McMaster, an ex officio trustee, asked board members to give Caslen the vote.

Donors feared that might amount to undue political influence that could threaten the university's accreditation. Trustee Charlie Williams said board members were given 600 pages of mostly critical opinions of Caslen from professors and students the day of the April vote.

"The damage is done. The only question is how much more damage will there be," Williams said before the vote Friday.

Caslen's supporters touted his 43 years in the military. He was superintendent of West Point for five years. He had the support of McMaster and Republican lawmakers who suggested he could bring federal programs to the school and a share of federal money. Caslen was interviewed by Trump as a finalist for national security adviser in 2017.

"He is a very successful leader," trustee Robert Jones said.

Caslen was not in Columbia for the vote, but said he would come to the city next week and begin to try to heal issues with his election. His contract said he will start by September.

"I will work tirelessly to listen to all of our students, faculty, staff, board members and all our constituents to understand their concerns and issues, and I will actively seek their advice. From talking with many people, it is clear the University of South Carolina is on track to be the preeminent institution of higher education in America today, and I will work to move this university and system in that direction," Caslen said in a statement released by the school.

Before trustees ordered the public out of their board room for two hours of discussions behind closed doors, Chairman John von Lehe said Caslen had another job offer and they had to act now if they wanted him. He did not give specifics.

Professors said Caslen lacks qualifications, like a doctoral degree or university research experience. The faculty Senate unanimously approved a no confidence vote on Caslen last week.

Two weeks of student protests and increasingly angry complaints over the search had a surprise ending Thursday when billionaire businesswoman Darla Moore sent a letter to von Lehe asking trustees not to vote. Moore is the school's biggest donor.

The tension between trustees and legislators likely isn't over. Republican Senate President Harvey Peeler has introduced a bill to cut the number of trustees from 20 to 11. Peeler said his legislation is meant to reduce the board's unwieldiness and put it in line with schools like Clemson University, which has 13 trustees - although other public universities in South Carolina have similarly large boards. The College of Charleston has 20 trustees.

The university is looking to replace Harris Pastides, a president beloved for growing the university while being an accessible leader who likes to walk though campus taking selfies with students.

The previous two university presidents had been selected by a unanimous vote.