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USC boss called Strom center renaming debate a 'train wreck' that is 'going to get ugly'

COLUMBIA — Call it a decision no one wants to make: Whether to rename the University of South Carolina fitness center named after U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. 

USC President Bob Caslen had a few names for the quandary heading for a resolution in early June.

“I truly believe it will be a head-on train wreck, but we’ll need to mitigate the fallout,” Caslen wrote to his predecessor Harris Pastides in August. That same month, Caslen wrote to his chief of staff, Mark Bieger, that renaming the Strom wellness center was an "elephant in the room."

In emails obtained by The Post and Courier under a public records request, Caslen and his team struggled with calls to remove Thurmond's name. School leaders worried about the perception of USC versus archrival Clemson University and the slow pace of deliberation by a university history commission that Pastides co-chairs.

Donors, alumni and staff sent Caslen and the university trustees emails expressing divergent concerns about proposals to remove Thurmond's name from the 19-year-old wellness center near the school's basketball arena.

Those who wanted the name removed feared ongoing damage to the university's reputation, even in sports.

“We have problems with recruiting with recent history on the football/basketball field. This issue should only make those issues more prominent,” Phillip Mason, who received a bachelor’s degree  and medical degrees from USC, wrote to trustees in June. “I never thought I would become ashamed of the direction of OUR university and agree more with Clemson. But I have surprised myself." 

Supporters for keeping the name worried about "cancel culture." One graduate threatened to cut off future donations.

“Avoid the bottom-less pit of McCarthy-like accusations, extortion attempts, knee-jerk reactions, etc.,” wrote Timothy Watson, a 1987 graduate who noted he is a lifetime member of the alumni association in an email to trustees. “My continued support, especially financially, depends on your response to these divisive demands and petitions.”

Unlike buildings named after 19th-century slave owners and sympathizers, Thurmond died less than 20 years ago.

His legacy is complicated.

Much of the country sees him as a segregationist for his actions in the 1940s and 1950s. Many in South Carolina see him as a caring politician known for constituent service and helping African Americans. At least five trustees donated to a political action committee for Thurmond's reelections, according to federal data.

Several trustees have made it clear they have little interest in tackling Thurmond's name like they did in approving a name change for the J. Marion Sims women's dorm last June. Sims, considered a 19th century innovator in modern gynecology, experimented on slaves.

Even with university board approval, actually changing building names requires legislative consent under a law called the Heritage Act — a tough path in a Republican-dominated Statehouse that has shown reluctance to take up name and monument removals.

"People don’t want to be part of the woke cancel culture and part of it is, when you start coming after Strom Thurmond, it’s a different game at that point," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, a Republican from Thurmond's hometown of Edgefield, said in April. 

Still, a panel looking at university history is expected to decide June 2 whether to forward to the school president proposed changes to 16 buildings named after slave owners, Confederate Civil War figures and segregationists. "The Strom," as the wellness center is known on campus, is on the list as is the Hollings Library named after Thurmond's longtime colleague in the Senate, Fritz Hollings, who ran as a segregationist in the 1950s.  

USC's president will decide whether to bring those name-change recommendations to the board. 

Caslen was set to get those recommendations from the commission he organized soon after becoming USC's president in mid-2019. But he resigned May 13 amid a plagiarism scandal. 

Now that decision will come before Pastides, who was approved as interim president on May 21. Pastides stepped down as a co-chair of the university history commission.

Paul Thurmond, a former state senator who practices law in Charleston, declined comment about the efforts to rename the wellness center named after his father.

Sims, not Strom, get dumped

Less than three weeks after the killing of George Floyd sparked social justice protests nationwide, the Clemson University board made a bold move.

The state's second-largest school voted June 12 to remove the name of slavery sympathizer John Calhoun from its graduate school and to ask the Legislature to rename a campus building named after avowed white supremacist Ben Tillman, a former governor and U.S. senator, which has gotten no traction in the Statehouse.

USC's board planned to meet a week later. On the day of the Clemson vote, Pastides raised renaming the Strom in an email to Caslen.

“We wonder whether the board can move to rename the Strom without legislative approval?” he asked. “I remember this being a ‘gift naming’ issue and as I remember the university never received the intended gift (a secondary matter).”

There was no reply included in the emails obtained by The Post and Courier. But the school has made it clear that renaming the Strom would need legislative approval.

But Caslen understood the university needed to take some sort of action.

“It’s not only on social media but football recruits and others are expressing concerns,” Caslen wrote then-USC board chairman John von Lehe on June 13 while noting he received petitions asking to rename the Strom.

A number of former Gamecocks football players now in the pros also demanded the name change.

Conversations then shifted on renaming the Sims dorm as a compromise. 

Two days before the USC board meeting, David Seaton, a former construction company executive who led the school's last large fundraising drive, wrote Caslen and von Lehe with a suggestion to look at renaming buildings in conjunction with a new fundraising campaign.

“We will need things like this to focus people on the right things as well as naming opportunities for the big donors,” wrote Seaton, who works closely with the board.

Caslen replied that he expected a wave of building renamings, including the Strom, but he feared any delay in renaming Sims could harm the university. He noted the positive response Clemson received for its decision on names, adding that acting quickly on Sims “will help rebuild much public trust that our board desperately needs.”

USC's board had been under fire for hiring Caslen in 2019 after lobbying from Gov. Henry McMaster, which earned a rebuke from accreditors for political meddling. 

When it came to renaming other buildings, including the Strom, Caslen told Seaton that would be up to the university history commission.

“I believe we can influence that," Caslen wrote. “We will act on their study and review, and we can control what they review and when. Said another way, if this will snowball, I believe we can control that through the Naming Commission.”

In a text exchange with The Post and Courier on May 19, Caslen said he was referring to steering the commission toward developing a program that would tell the university's history because name changes needed Statehouse approval.

"Renaming certainly has the attention of so many, and it must be addressed," said Caslen, who has never publicly shared his view on changing the name of the Strom. "I was trying to get the history program in place as soon as possible, because I knew actual renaming was going to be challenging."

Emails came pouring in to USC the week before the university board vote on the Sims dorm. Most were about the Strom.

Keith Elliott, former CEO of a chemicals firm who graduated from USC in 1964, wrote to Caslen and former USC President John Palms that he was glad the Strom was not going to be discussed at the board meeting.

“Thurmond made the building possible so that students and faculty of all races could use it for wellness in the future,” Elliott wrote in an email where he noted he was a high-level donor to Gamecock athletics. “When it was built, there was no restriction on who could use it. Senator Thurmond did a great thing for the university by getting federal funds for making that building a reality. … I hope the name is never changed.”

Marin Duby, a 2010 graduate, wrote to trustees that keeping Thurmond's name on the wellness center "sends a tacit message to all students (especially Black students) that elevating figures known for their racist, separationist views is more important than ensuring all students feel a sense of belonging on campus.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., takes his seat prior to a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 1995. File/AP

USC's board voted to remove the Sims name.

Von Lehe sent a letter to the state House and Senate leaders informing them of the decision. But USC has not tried to get a lawmaker to sponsor a bill to change the name.

The dorm is still called Sims nearly a year after the board vote.

Caslen said in a text exchange with The Post and Courier last week that is why he used the term "train wreck" about efforts to rename the wellness center.

"The 'train wreck' is an expected finding from the (university history) commission’s report to rename some buildings, but renaming will likely not occur because there appears to be no clear pathway to gain necessary approval (in the Legislature) under the Heritage Act," Caslen told the paper. "Sims is an example. That would lead to unmet expectations and the university leadership would have to work through that.”

'Can try to deflect it'

After the board vote, Caslen pledged a further review of campus building names. 

Soon, attention turned to how slowly the history commission was moving.

In July, Julian Williams, USC's vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, told Caslen that Pastides said at a commission meeting that he is operating on a timeline for name changes that could last up to two years.

“I am not sure our community will allow us that time on issues of naming,” Williams wrote to Caslen.

John A. Carlos II 

Bob Caslen resigned as University of South Carolina president on May. 13, 2021. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Caslen agreed with Williams’ assessment.

“It is going to get ugly, and I think I know what the outcome will be,” Caslen wrote back.

In August, Caslen wrote to Pastides about a message Williams received. USC student government vice president Hannah White warned Williams about expectations of increased activism on building names when fall classes resumed.

“I suspect naming of the Storm is a train wreck about to happen,” Caslen wrote to his predecessor. “Besides the below email ‘warning,’ I assume we’ll get a lot of pressure to rename Strom from students, athletes, coaches and others. We can try to deflect it, but I suspect we’ll not be able to.”

He noted that students expected a decision on building names by December.

That informal deadline was missed by six months.

Pastides said in a statement sent though a university spokesman on May 20 that the "two years" comment was said by someone else. 

"I always believed that the correct timeline was the one we have held to," he said. "It’s, roughly, the same timeline that most other universities used. Of course, the pandemic struck right at the outset."

'Sets us up for failure'

The commission needed a reset.

The school planned to acknowledge the group's previous mission was “unclear, vague and problematic,” Bieger, Caslen's chief of staff, wrote to the president. 

FILE 

Harris Pastides is returning as University of South Carolina president on an interim basis. File

“Right now, they are struggling as evidenced that this will be only their third meeting in just under a year, with little progress in any direction,” Bieger wrote in August. “That sets us up for failure.”

Administrators tried to provide more clear direction for the commission.

Later in August, Caslen and his team became worried about a planned news conference organized by former Gamecock football player Moe Brown on the same day as a university history commission meeting. Bieger said administrators saw the news conference as a “campaign event” since Brown is running for Congress.

Brown spoke at the event as did some athletes, but in a bit of a surprise, USC women's basketball head coach Dawn Staley also talked in front of the Strom. 

“I’m standing here with them for change, supporting what they believe in, because change needs to happen,” Staley told reporters.

Around the same time, some alums came to Thurmond’s defense.

They included Bettis Rainsford Sr., founder of textile firm Delta Woodside, who grew up in the senator’s hometown and was a friend to Thurmond.

“Although Thurmond did support the institution of segregation which was widely accepted throughout the first half century of his life, even during that period he was extremely helpful to thousands of African Americans and worked hard to improve the lives of all South Carolinians regardless of race,” Rainsford wrote to trustees.

“The example of his unswerving commitment to making South Carolina a better place throughout his nearly 75 years of public service and his transition to full support for all South Carolinians regardless of race, should be inspiring to all students of the University of South Carolina for generations to come."

James Smith, a former legislator and Democratic nominee for governor now working in Caslen's office, later shared a video of Thurmond's life with the president.  

“So the question will be whether you can (or should) honor a man who changed?” Caslen wrote in response. “Lots of opinions and feeling on that one.”

Still, little action took place by the commission during the fall semester.

By mid-December, Caslen expressed frustration at the group’s pace after getting an update from Pastides that offered little evidence they were making any headway.

“I have no idea what all they’re doing,” Caslen wrote to his team.

It took complaints in February by USC's two student government leaders, vice president White and President Issy Rushton, to get the commission toward the finish line. They threatened to quit the commission over the lack of progress. 

"Let us be clear: This flagship institution is currently falling on the wrong side of history," they wrote in a letter to the commission. "The longer we continue without action, the more this university will lose the trust of the students, alumni, faculty and staff."

Soon after, the commission voted on 16 buildings that could be recommended for renaming, setting set up the final battle in June over the fate of the Strom.

Jessica Holdman and Seanna Adcox contributed from Columbia.


Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park


Nachos available at Columbia Fireflies' games.


John Sims is pictured in his piece "Confederate Gothic." The artist has spent 20 years fighting the symbolism of Confederate flags by recoloring and recontextualizing them. Provided


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