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USC President Caslen resigns as plagiarism scandal ends rocky tenure: 'Not the right fit'

John A. Carlos II

USC President Bob Caslen 

John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen resigned May 12 amid a plagiarism scandal that capped two rocky years as leader of the state's largest college.

Former USC President Harris Pastides has been named the interim president and will take over May 14.

Trustees Miles Loadholt and Eddie Floyd said the board took a vote via phone to discuss appointing Pastides, who retired in 2019 after 11 years in office, if Caslen left. Board chairman Dorn Smith said he sent an email to trustees announcing Caslen's departure and Pastides' return.

That means USC violated state open records laws requiring public notice of meetings ahead of time, another sign of problems for a board scrutinized after the presidential search that ended with Caslen's controversial hiring.

Caslen, a retired three-star general and West Point superintendent, admitted to plagiarizing lines from the Navy SEAL who was in charge of the mission to take out terrorist leader Osama bin Laden during commencement addresses last weekend. He also called the school “the University of California."

The missteps were met with calls for his removal online and in messages to trustees.

It was the latest in a series of stumbles for a leader who had trouble with the social nuances of a job that requires wooing donors, lawmakers and students. Caslen's end was a far cry from 2019 when he was seen as a president who could help tighten the school's checkbook and win work with his military contacts.

"Turns out he was probably not the right fit to run USC," said Floyd, the longest-serving trustee on the USC board. 

Caslen, 67, offered to resign over the weekend, but it was rejected by Smith. Despite that assurance and a call of support from Gov. Henry McMaster, backing for the president continued to erode over the past days. Word began to spread that trustees were preparing to start exit talks. 

Smith said Caslen called unexpectedly at 5:30 p.m. May 12 to say he was resigning.

"He just thought it was time to go, and I think that he was concerned about the support of the faculty and the students and everybody else," Smith said. "We're disappointed with the way things worked out.

"I think Bob Caslen did a great job at a lot of things that he won't get credit for," Smith added. "I think he handled the COVID crisis fabulously. And it's just unfortunate that there were some missteps that were well publicized."

Caslen said in a statement that he knew he had lost trust among the university community.   

"Trust is the most important ingredient of effective leadership, and when it is lost, it is nearly impossible to lead," Caslen said in an email to students and staff. "I believe that is the case right now between the University of South Carolina and its president. Therefore, I have submitted my resignation to the Board of Trustees this evening, May 12, and they have accepted it. This resignation is effective May 13, 2021.

"I am sorry to those I have let down. I understand the responsibilities and higher standards of senior level leadership. When those are not met, trust is lost. And when trust is lost, one is unable to lead."

Smith said USC's next president will be more like Pastides, a former public health school dean and research vice president who was known for connecting well with the campus community and politicians.

"I want a academician that is charismatic, that will lead a capital campaign and that also has a business sense," Smith said.

Lou Kennedy, one of USC's major donors, said she hopes the school can find a president who reflects the state's diversity: "Now is the time for the Carolina community, and that includes the board, to stand up and be counted."

USC did not have a woman among the finalists when the president's job was last open. 

USC Provost Bill Tate, who was a finalist to become the school's president in 2019 and was considered a successor to Caslen, will become the first Black president at Louisiana State University in July. 

Caslen was never able to shake how he got the $650,000-a-year job in 2019.

He was a favored candidate by key leaders on the board and the search committee. His name was added to the list of presidential semifinalists by the search committee chairman, trustee Hugh Mobley, according to Marco Valtorta, a USC computer science professor who served on the search panel. Mobley said at the time the he did nothing wrong and declined further comment.

Caslen's ascension scared away potential successors to Pastides, leaving him as the only finalist to have led a college. But groups of students, faculty and alumni were upset Caslen lacked the research background and doctorate of other major university leaders. He also put off some by rambling during forums, leading to misunderstandings about what he was saying.

The board did not pick any of the four presidential finalists at first, but McMaster lobbied trustees to hire Caslen and a new vote was taken. Caslen won the job with an 11-8 vote after a contentious board meeting as protesters chanted outside.

The governor's involvement caught the attention of USC's accreditors who investigated the political meddling but did not sanction the school. The board was asked to makeover its rules to avoid potential conflicts and operate more professionally.

Caslen started off well by boosting pay for faculty for the first time in more than a decade and freezing tuition. He hired the school's first Black provost, Tate, and brought in his chief of staff from West Point, Mark Bieger, who helped improve relationships on and off campus.

Caslen got USC through the pandemic, first closing campus last spring and reopening in the fall.

But he had some missteps, notably in revealing USC spoke to Florida State about buying out the contract of its football coach as the Gamecocks coach struggled and he was unable to make big changes after several high-profile sexual harassment complaints.

Then USC mega-donor Darla Moore said she was cutting ties with the school this year after her alma mater neglected to note the passing of her mother this year. Caslen also had a reputation of not engaging smoothly with the university community. 

The plagiarism incident was too much to rescue his tenure.

The USC chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote in a letter to the board May 12 that Caslen’s commencement speech violated the school’s code of ethics that emphasizes practicing personal and academic integrity, and his earlier resignation offer was “an appropriate acknowledgement of the transgression.”

"Unfortunately he had enemies out there that continued to attack him savagely from day one," Smith said. "And I think it just wore down on him and his wife as it would wear down on anybody."

The brouhaha over Caslen’s plagiarism has angered some lawmakers, who question the board’s direction.

"I think it was the honorable thing to do," state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, said of Caslen's resignation. "But it doesn't resolve the questions surrounding the Board of Trustees."

Harpootlian introduced a bill May 12 to reduce the size of the board from 20 trustees to 11, which would give the state’s largest college the state’s smallest college board. The bill also would remove all the current trustees.

A similar bill was introduced after the problematic search that led to Caslen’s hiring in 2019.

Follow Andy Shain on Facebook (andyshain12) and Twitter (@andyshain)

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