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Harris Pastides retakes USC helm as interim president of state's largest university

Harris Pastides spends his last day at University of South Carolina (copy)

The board of trustees at USC unanimously approved Harris Pastides taking over for former President Bob Caslen following Caslen's recent resignation amid a plagiarism scandal. File/Andy Shain/The Post and Courier 

COLUMBIA — In a return to service, Harris Pastides was named interim president of the University of South Carolina on May 21.

The USC board of trustees unanimously approved Pastides taking over for former President Bob Caslen following his recent resignation amid a plagiarism scandal. The board voted to keep Caslen working as an adviser through June.

The vote took place following lengthy discussions by board members in nearly two hours of executive session closed to the public in an alumni center built in 2015 and named in 2019 for Pastides. 

Pastides, a Yale-educated epidemiologist and former dean of USC’s public health school, was a popular figure on campus during his 11 years helming the state's largest university until 2019. He told The Post and Courier that he expects to be in the interim job about a year as the school launches into the search for its next president.

"The University of South Carolina remains a beacon of educational excellence and a cornerstone of progress for our state," Pastides said, after he and his wife, Patricia, entered to a standing ovation. "I am absolutely bullish about what we can do this year and I’m optimistic about our long-term future."

"Despite the challenges of the past year, our community has proven yet again that our university stands resilient in times of adversity," he added during is address to the board.

Pastides will collect a salary of $750,000, which is less than the $1.1 million he was earning in his final year as president, a figure that made him one of the nation’s highest-compensated public university presidents in recent years, according to data compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education. He was in the midst of earning $325,000 a year as a consultant to the university.

USC board Chairman Dorn Smith thanked Pastides for "helping out in our time of need."

Pastides' return comes after a search in 2019 that split the usually harmonious board, sometimes along political party lines in a state where Republicans dominate. Pastides was seen as being too friendly to Democrats by some Republican leaders.

Caslen was hired in an 11-8 vote after Republican Gov. Henry McMaster lobbied trustees on behalf of the retired three-star Army general and West Point superintendent who was criticized by some for not having enough experience to run a state flagship college.

“The Democrats hate us. We took their castle,” Trey Walker, McMaster’s chief of staff, texted to trustee Dan Adams after Caslen won USC board approval in 2019. “It’s our turn!!” replied Adams, one of two McMaster appointees on the board.

Caslen will continue to serve as an adviser overseeing implementation of the strategic plan he announced during his presidential term, including development of partnerships with the federal Department of Defense and associated research opportunities. He is also asked to continue assisting with the school's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When he resigned, Caslen had held a $650,000-a-year handshake contract, with few guarantees and no fixed length of employment. He will continue to be compensated at the same monthly rate he was receiving, amounting to about $100,000 over the next couple months.

Caslen stepped down after taking full responsibility for the unattributed quotes made during a spring commencement ceremony where he also mistakenly referred to graduates as "the newest alumni of The University of California." Caslen quoted a famous speech by retired U.S. Navy four-star Adm. William McRaven without crediting the former Navy SEAL commander who led the mission to take out terror leader Osama bin Laden. 

USC now enters the presidential search as the school's Provost Bill Tate, who was being groomed as Caslen's successor, leaves to head Louisiana State University. South Carolina's flagship university will also be competing for talent against a number of other large universities looking for new leadership.

The school recently underwent a reform of its search process after McMaster's lobbying landed USC in trouble with college accreditors concerned about the undue outside influence.

The presidential search committee will be made up of eight trustees, the five faculty senate leaders from the university campuses and the Columbia student body president.

The trustees appointed to the search panel include two of the 20-member board's four female trustees and the board's two Black trustees. 

USC board vice chairman Thad Westbrook, an attorney with the influential Nelson Mullins law firm who lives in Lexington, will lead the search committee.

The other trustees on the board include: Smith, a Williamsburg County surgeon; former USC basketball star Alex English; Brian Harlan, who runs the YMCA in Greenwood; Rock Hill attorney Leah Moody; Seneca attorney Emma Morris; Florence attorney Gene Warr; and former Greenville bank executive Mack Whittle.

Smith, Warr and Moody were on the presidential search committee in 2019.

The search is different this time with more trustees and faculty representation and no voting members from the school's alumni association and foundations.

Alumni association president Robin Roberts and foundations vice chairman James Bennett were added as non-voting advisers.

Other advisers include Lou Kennedy, owner of a Columbia-area pharmaceuticals firm Nephron, who is one of the school's biggest donors, and David Seaton, former chief executive of Fluor Corp., who led USC's last fundraising campaign and consults with the board.

The board plans to interview executive search firms to conduct a national hunt for a new president to oversee a stateside university system with eight campuses, more than 50,000 students and an annual budget exceeding $1 billion.

Andy Shain contributed from Columbia.

Reach Jessica Holdman at jholdman@postandcourier.com. Follow her @jmholdman on Twitter.

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