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USC president apologizes, admits to plagiarizing end of commencement speech

Caslen at podium (copy) (copy) (copy)

USC President Bob Caslen, pictured here at a prior event. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to the Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen admitted plagiarizing a portion of the speech he delivered during an on-campus graduation ceremony on May 7, issuing an apology three days later and taking full responsibility for not citing its original speaker.

Caslen delivered the copycat remarks to graduates of USC's Arnold School of Public Health, School of Music and the Darla Moore School of Business. He repeated the unattributed remarks during at least one other ceremony, held the morning of May 8.

The wording in question — lasting some two paragraphs in length — was originally made by retired U.S. Navy four-star Adm. William McRaven during a 2014 commencement at the University of Texas.

McRaven is the former Navy SEAL commander in charge of the mission to take out terror leader Osama bin Laden and author of the self-discipline book "Make Your Bed" which was an expansion of his own graduation speech. 

In a statement released by USC, Caslen said, "I am truly sorry. During my remarks in our weekend commencement ceremonies, I shared a well-known quote from Admiral William McRaven and failed to cite him as its original author and speaker.

"I take full responsibility for this oversight," Caslen continued. "I sincerely apologize to Admiral McRaven, someone I know and respect, our graduates, their families and the entire university community for not leading by example."

In the university's honor code for students, plagiarism is listed in the same category as cheating, complicity and falsification. If a finding of plagiarism against a student is affirmed, sanctions could range from making the student conduct a research project or essay to a notification on transcripts or even suspension or expulsion.

There is no official plagiarism standard in the university's faculty manual, according to Mark Cooper, chairman of the Faculty Senate, though many faculty members are members of professional organizations, which have their own independent standards for academic honesty.

Cooper said the senate is discussing the incident but has not decided on any action at this time.

Near the end of the roughly three-hour, in-person and live-streamed ceremony, in an introduction of the president of USC's alumni association, Caslen, without indicating he was quoting a prior speech, repeated nearly word for word two paragraphs of the address delivered by McRaven, who also served as chancellor of The University of Texas System from 2015 to 2018.

The copied section reads:

"Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when the times are the toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up – if you do these things, the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.

"And what started here will indeed have changed the world — for the better."

Caslen's address was already achieving viral status before the plagiarism came to light due to the president also having bungled the school's name during the ceremony, mistakenly congratulating the graduates as the "newest alumni of The University of California."

The gaffe earned Caslen a mix of laughs, boos and confused remarks. A large number of students who received their degrees that evening took to social media upset that the president didn't appear more prepared for the occasion.

“President Caslen apologizes for accidentally saying ‘California’ instead of ‘Carolina’ at the end of last night’s ceremony and regrets any attention it may have drawn from the accomplishments of our graduates," the school said in a statement to The State newspaper of Columbia. 

This is far from the first time the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has stumbled in a speech.

When competing for the position of USC president, Caslen had several slip ups while speaking to students and faculty. Those remarks, made during what would become a controversial hiring process, included a statement that some thought blamed sexual assault on binge drinking and another that bragged about increasing diversity among West Point cadets without lowering standards for minorities.

Caslen has said those statements were taken out of context.

While those remarks were not favorable, much of the dissension surrounding Caslen's hiring came from the perceived politics involved when Gov. Henry McMaster, who also was the official commencement speaker during this most recent fallout, used his position within the Board of Trustees to lobby for the retired three-star Army general despite Caslen's lack of a doctoral degree and research pedigree held by previous presidents.

Caslen had begun to overcome some of the controversy that led to his hiring, winning praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that closed the campus in the spring of 2020.

Following the reopening in the fall, Caslen then had to battle one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 surges on a college campus.

This latest misstep comes as Caslen's second-in-command, Provost William Tate, prepares to leave USC for the top position at Louisiana State University.

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

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