Mayor Benjamin Power Issue 2018

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. File

Democratic Columbia lawmakers are beginning to push back against a reported effort by Gov. Henry McMaster to force a University of South Carolina board of trustees vote on hiring former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen as the school's next president.

Among those insisting the school's presidential search remain open are state Rep. Seth Rose, who is a hall of fame Gamecocks tennis player, and state Sen. Darrell Jackson, long one of the most influential African American voices at the State House.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a USC graduate and former student body president, also is criticizing McMaster for getting directly involved the school's presidential selection.

As noted by The Post and Courier on July 9, the Republican McMaster could, in a move unprecedented in the modern day, preside over a Friday USC board of trustees meeting and push for a vote on Caslen, the retired Army general who was among four finalists for the top university job earlier this year.

Caslen was considered the favorite among the candidates during the earlier search 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 — the board of trustees chose to reopen the presidential search. USC Upstate Chancellor Brendan Kelly was named the interim president, with current president Harris Pastides set to officially retire this month.

Now some Democratic leaders in Richland County are beginning to chirp about McMaster's move to press forward on a vote for Caslen during a summer period where most students and many faculty are away from the Columbia campus.

Jackson — a 26-year veteran of the Legislature, a member of the Senate's higher education subcommittee and one of the most powerful voices in the Legislative Black Caucus — expressed his displeasure with the maneuvering in regard to Caslen.

"I'm incredibly disappointed with what I've read about Gov. McMaster's interference in the UofSC president selection process," Jackson said in a statement. "The board of trustees have already determined their own process for choosing the best possible candidate for the job by extending their search, and I see no reason for the governor to pressure them to alter this. 

"There was deliberate reasoning behind none of original finalists receiving votes, and, to my knowledge, nothing regarding that logic has changed. I hope the board will have the courage to do what's right, and follow their own process."

Jackson went on to say that the presidency of USC is "not a cabinet position" of the governor.

Benjamin, the third-term Columbia Mayor, is concerned about the seemingly sudden rush to usher in Caslen. 

"An illegitimate process will only yield illegitimate results," the mayor says. "This cloud of haste and lack of transparency does disservice to everyone."​

Benjamin insists he is not critical of Caslen, but the mayor questions how McMaster's lobbying trustees led to a special board meeting where the general could become USC's president.

"This is about the governor superimposing his power on a process that ought not to be political," said Benjamin, who brags his "blood runs garnet."

Meanwhile, Rose, the Columbia Democrat, also is encouraging the board to keep its presidential search open. 

Rose has penned a letter to USC board Chairman John von Lehe Jr., asking him directly to let the presidential search "continue in the most transparent and inclusive manner possible."

Aside from his two degrees and athletic fame at USC, Rose's District 72 also includes the majority of the school's Columbia campus.

"Like many constituents in my district, I was taken aback by media reports that board members may vote this Friday to install Robert Caslen as the next president at USC," Rose wrote. "As I'm sure you remember, Mr. Caslen received the largest share of negative ratings from USC students, faculty and staff during interviews with finalists back in April."

Rose lamented that the Caslen move is coming during the summer, when the campus is near empty, saying that slipping Caslen into the post at this moment, without more input from numerous university stakeholders, could be a move that would "take years, if not decades, to repair."

The state representative reminded von Lehe that the school's board has had success in the past in choosing presidents without the governor wielding a heavy hand.

"When allowed to run its course, USC trustees have had enormous success picking good presidents for our university, which is one reason why there have only been three presidents during the past 27 years," Rose wrote. "I have no doubt that if you run a fair, transparent and open search for our next president, trustees will agree unanimously on someone who rises to the same level that [former presidents] John Palms, Andrew Sorensen and Harris Pastides reached during their interviews and subsequent selections."

Andy Shain contributed to this report.

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