dark gavel

It appears a now-canceled meeting of the University of South Carolina board of trustees — one which could have seen former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen elected as the school's new president — would have run afoul of state meeting notice laws, according to an opinion of the state Attorney General's office.

The USC board, at the behest of Gov. Henry McMaster, was slated to meet Friday morning to take up the matter of the school's search for a new leader to replace outgoing president Harris Pastides. It was widely expected the board was going to vote on installing Caslen, the retired Army general, as the next president.

However, that meeting was called off after board member Charles Williams won a temporary restraining order because the board did not receive notice of the meeting five days ahead of time. The board members had received email notice of the Friday meeting on Tuesday. USC canceled the meeting after the restraining order was issued, and Judge Robert Hood is set to hold a hearing on the matter on July 19.

Among those who also had raised concern about the legality of the meeting was Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a USC graduate and former student body president at the school. Benjamin and state Sen. Darrell Jackson hosted a press conference on Thursday questioning whether the timing of the meeting was lawful and imploring the USC board to keep its search for a new president open.

Benjamin on Thursday asked for an opinion from the state attorney general's office as to whether the USC board meeting had been properly noticed. He received an answer on Friday morning from Solicitor General Robert Cook.

In his question to the Attorney General's office, Benjamin pointed out that state law says that "notice of the time and place of all meetings, both regular and special meetings, of the board of trustees of the University of South Carolina shall be mailed by the secretary or his assistant to each trustee not less than five days before each meeting thereof."

In his subsequent opinion, Cook affirmed that the requirements of the law are that trustees must receive five days notice — by mail — before a trustees meeting. Cook notes that the law as it regards meeting notices for the USC board has not been amended since 1983 to include email as a means of providing notice to board members.

"In short, while proper notice may have been provided under [the Freedom of Information Act] ... the statute requiring five days notice by mail to trustees is mandatory," Cook wrote. "This being the case, we have no room for interpretation of the statute. Only a court could conclude otherwise. Accordingly, it is our opinion that five days notice by mail means precisely that. The requirements of [trustee meeting notice laws] may not be waived."

Caslen was considered the favorite among four candidates during a USC presidential search earlier this year. But after his candidacy rankled some faculty and students — via comments that suggested binge drinking contributed to sexual assault and that West Point improved diversity without lowering standards for minority cadets, among other concerns — the board of trustees chose to reopen the search. USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly was named the interim president when Harris Pastides retires at the end of July.

But that was seemingly upended this week when it came to light that McMaster was urging the USC board to take a vote on a new president.

Benjamin was one of a number of people who urged the board not to abandon its previous plan to reopen the presidential search. On social media, the third-term mayor insisted his Thursday press conference on the matter was not specifically in regard to Caslen, but rather over concern that McMaster was wielding a heavy hand in the process.

 "My participation in this press conference is about Governor @henrymcmaster’s unwise interference with the established @uofsc process for selecting its next president NOT about General Caslen," Benjamin tweeted Thursday. "General Caslen has served his country well & by all accounts is an [American] leader."

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