James Smith, a former longtime state legislator and 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, is throwing support behind retired Army Gen. Robert Caslen, who could be hired as the next president of the University of South Carolina.
Smith's support comes on the eve of a USC board meeting where trustees are scheduled to vote on a new president. It is widely believed the board will vote in Caslen, the former superintendent of West Point.
Caslen was among four finalists for the presidency earlier this year and seemed on the precipice of being hired in April. However, his candidacy caused concern among some faculty and students. Some questioned the fact that, despite his desire to lead a research university, he does not have a Ph.D. Opponents also pointed to comments from Caslen that suggested binge drinking contributed to sexual assault and that West Point improved diversity without lowering standards for minority cadets as red flags.
The board in April chose to continue the presidential search, and named USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly as an interim. But during the last two weeks, rumblings about Caslen have been rekindled, as Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has pushed for the USC board to name a new president.
Smith was a member of the state House of Representatives for 22 years. He stepped out of that role in 2018 to run for governor, winning the Democratic nomination. However, he was comfortably defeated by McMaster in November's general election. In January, he started a new job as the executive director of military strategies and programs for USC’s online school, Palmetto College.
In a statement released to Free Times, Smith, who holds undergraduate and law degrees from USC, weighed in on the presidential search.
The Columbia attorney, combat veteran of the Afghan war and longtime member of the South Carolina Army National Guard openly praised Caslen, and said he could be an asset to USC.
"I believe the character of the person who is being considered for the job has been unfairly maligned," Smith wrote. "I have had the opportunity to get to know Bob Caslen. He is smart, thoughtful and caring. He is a proven and visionary leader that could be a great president for our university or any institution."
Smith also stressed that others who have worked with Caslen in various capacities — like Davidson College President Carol Quillen, former West Point Chief Diversity Officer Donald Outing and Shreveport, Louisiana Mayor Adrian Perkins, who attended West Point when Caslen was a commandant there — have all vouched for Caslen's abilities.
Smith's statement also gave a small nod to the worries that many USC faculty and students have had about the search process for a new president at the school.
"I know many have voiced opinions about the presidential search process, and I share those concerns," Smith wrote. "As a university employee I know the selection of a new president is the board's vote, not mine."
Smith said specifically that he had concerns, as many did, about the diversity of the search. There were no women and only one African American among the four finalists earlier in the year.
When asked directly if he had concerns about McMaster's influence in the process, Smith replied, "I believe all of those concerns need to be and will be addressed."
Faculty, alumni and students have taken issue with the governor's role in the presidential search. The governor is an ex-officio chairman of USC's board, and his office has acknowledged that he has encouraged the board to take a vote on a president to replace the retiring Harris Pastides.
The university’s accreditor, the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools, sent a letter requesting a report of USC’s presidential search process by Aug. 10. The association says it is watching closely for political interference that would jeopardize the school's accreditation.
Some Columbia leaders, including Mayor Steve Benjamin and longtime state Sen. Darrell Jackson, have called on the board to cancel its presumptive vote for Caslen and keep the presidential search open.
On Thursday, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, the Columbia Democrat and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, echoed the call for the board to rethink voting for Caslen.
"I am deeply troubled by the chaos and appearance of undue political influence surrounding [Friday's] board meeting," said Harpootlian, whose district includes the USC campus.
The bombastic senator also fretted about the idea of the school losing accreditation because of political influence on the presidential search, saying it could be a "death knell" of the university.
"The speed of this process, the lack of transparency, and the political pressure brought to bear raise enormous questions that warrant a significant pause before severe and permanent damage is done to the University," Harpootlian said. "Accordingly, I respectfully call on the board to postpone the selection of any applicant [Friday] and return to an orderly, deliberate, and merit-based process to select USC’s next president."