This spring and summer, the University of South Carolina’s faculty, students, alumni and several local elected officials got a rude awakening — and a quick lesson in power politics.
This sudden shock came at the end of a routine matter: finding a new president after the retirement of Harris Pastides.
The USC Board of Trustees set about finding candidates and soon came up with a short list of four men (three white, one black) who visited, were interviewed, and met with students.
None made an especially strong impression, but one — retired Army Gen. Robert Caslen, 65, former superintendent of the military academy at West Point — quickly got on just about everyone’s bad side.
The reasons were partly political — the career military veteran served in the War in Iraq and had supported the U.S-backed Contra rebels during the mid-1980s Nicaraguan Revolution — but also academic and perhaps cultural.
Caslen, significantly, does not have a Ph.D., which is generally standard for a potential university president, and he disgruntled many students and faculty when he made some comments about the connection between binge drinking and sexual assault.
The university’s Board of Trustees, who had already been widely criticized because there were no female applicants, rejected the whole slate of candidates, named an interim president, and planned a do-over.
That is, until July, when Republican Gov. Henry McMaster weighed in, and called every single board member to rethink the decision on Caslen. He called, he wrote, he lobbied — so did his chief of staff, Trey Walker, who sang Caslen’s praises in texts to political leaders.
The lobbying by the governor, as ex-officio chairman, worked. The board voted on July 19. After some contentious back and forth, the trustees voted in favor of Caslen by a tally of 11 to 8.
For McMaster’s team, the win seemed like an ideological victory over campus radicals.
“The Democrats hate us,” crowed Walker in a text to trustee Dan Adams, the largest donor to McMaser’s 2018 campaign. “We took their castle.” Adams replied: “It’s our turn!!”
But while the governor got his way, there was immediate fallout.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools announced it would conduct a full review of the presidential search to determine whether “undue influence” was in evidence. Last week, in a letter received and then released by USC, leaders of the SACS said they found “evidence of a significant accreditation-related issue” and handed the matter to off to the organization’s its board for formal review at a December meeting.
A Statehouse committee was named to investigate Caslen’s hiring. Press reports, drawing on communications between the USC board and the governor’s office, laid out the story for all to see.
In the meantime, the new president has tried to go on a charm offensive with students and faculty, and the USC Faculty Senate on Oct. 2 gave a vote of no confidence to the Board of Trustees — citing “ample evidence of undue influence and conflict of interest” between “the Governor and multiple board members.”
For faculty, there remain several looming questions about just what this presidency portends for the future of the university.
Disdain for the Board
English professor Rebecca Stern doesn’t hold back when describing the Board of Trustees’ attitude toward the USC faculty.
“It’s an institution that just gave them — if you’ll pardon my French — a giant ‘F#!k you,’” she tells Free Times. “It’s explicit disregard of faculty opinion. So, most of us don’t really want to work somewhere where they say, ‘We don’t care what you think.’”
For Christian Anderson, chapter president of USC’s American Association of University Professors, the Caslen hiring was nothing if not an education for most faculty.
“What is the board? What do they do? Who are they?” he offers, describing the average gobsmacked faculty member. “For the first time, they’re looking at the roster. Who are these people? Look, it’s all white male lawyers.”
“The faculty had almost no knowledge of who is on the board,” says USC Faculty Senate President Mark Cooper, “and therefore there’s very little basis for mutual trust before the presidential search — and of course the presidential search process demolished whatever little trust there was.”
For Stern, the whole left-right tone of the battle missed legitimate concerns about whether Caslen would make an effective president.
“That became so explicitly about politics,” she says, “and threw out the window the fact that we were concerned about the University, about having somebody at the helm who has experience. There are plenty of people who are conservative who have experience running research universities. I think the disregard of legitimate concerns was really off-putting.”
“Everything that happens to this university happens through the board,” relates Bethany Bell of USC’s College of Social Work. “All of my concern has always been and continues to be with the Board of Trustees. Am I afraid that there may be changes made at the university moving forward? Yes, and it’s because of the power that the Governor and the board have shown that they have over the university. I don’t attribute that to Caslen.”
“There has been no acknowledgment that there was anything wrong with the way the search was conducted,” says history professor Carol Harrison, “and so I would say the focus is largely on the board and the potential the board can be reformed.”
“They should have known better,” Anderson concludes. “They do know better. The way they coordinated the search was unfortunate. … There’s no reason for it. They could have kept to the promise to continue the search in the fall. At least it would have been a more transparent process.”
“They made clear that they weren’t really listening to the campus,” he adds, “to the faculty, to the students, to the alumni who expressed concern.”
Responding to Free Times through a representative, Caslen looked to assuage such concerns.
“The selection process currently under review by SACS has absolutely nothing to do with the excellent research, scholarship and teaching that takes place every day at the university,” his statement reads. “My goal as president is to strengthen and invest in those areas, not diminish them, and I’ve shared this vision publicly and privately with faculty members on many occasions. We currently have a faculty-led committee working to find the next provost for the university, and I’m certain we will attract a world-class academic leader who will position us for continued success.”
Is Caslen Qualified?
With Caslen now in the president’s office, concerns about his qualifications haven’t gone away.
“When you search for a president, you prefer to have someone who has direct experience of all aspects of faculty members’ mission,” says computer science professor Marco Valtorta, the former Faculty Senate president, who was on the presidential search committee.
That, he continued, is why having a doctorate is important.
“The president is expected to have gone through, like an apprenticeship, an education,” he explains. “That leads the president to appreciate in first person how the faculty member will work in scholarship, research or in teaching.”
Harrison pointed out that Caslen recently mentioned plans to make up for funding by raising grants and donations.
“I would’ve been more reassured if that announcement had come along with any sense of how we are going to bring in more grant money,” she says. “I would be more reassured if we had a president who knew something about running a major research university, and about getting grants, who knew something about what administrative structures are necessary to support faculty research to get grants.”
There is also the lingering possibility of moving the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, currently located on Garners Ferry Road, to the BullStreet development downtown. Harrison is unsure how those plans will develop with Caslen at the helm.
“I think that’s a huge challenge,” she says, “but I really don’t know how it’s going to play out. I think that’s a lot of people’s biggest concern right now.“
The new president does possess academic leadership experience, having served as president of West Point for five years after a two-year stint as commandant, the No. 2 position at that institution.
Still, while Caslen’s military career has been touted by many — including the governor — as an asset, Valtorta doubts that it allows a smooth transition.
“I don’t think the military experience is incompatible with leading a university like ours, I would not ever want to say that,” he said. “But I’m a little worried that someone who has spent all of his time, up to now, in a military organization which is a much more rigid, hierarchical structure — it’s really very difficult to make this kind of switch.”
Another potential concern for some is the idea that maybe the Governor’s Office really did capture the castle — and that Caslen’s administration might signify a more conservative mood on campus.
“Is it going to be harder to teach those classes that have controversial topics — not because the Board of Trustees say you can’t teach it but because the more conservative students may decide to have a louder voice and start objecting to it?” asks Bell. “Will the conservative students become more emboldened in their response to things that have traditionally been taught from a critical perspective?”
“He’s said he would support academic freedom and he gave some examples of how he did that at West Point,” offers Anderson. “Of course, time will tell. I’m the kind of person who’s inclined to trust but verify. My attitude since the appointment was made was, ‘He’s the president, let’s work the best way we can with him,’ but that doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for what the faculty role is and should be. [We will] vigorously defend academic freedom and tenure and the academic values that made the university great.”
Harrison, who teaches women’s history, is used to tackling controversial topics and does not expect that part of her job to change.
“I have been here at USC for 17 years and I have found it an extremely open atmosphere,” she says. “I have never felt constrained to tow a particular ideological line and I have really appreciated that.”
For Caslen’s part, he’s firm that such fears are unwarranted.
“I’m not sure where that notion originated, but I would never try to inject partisan politics into our teaching,” the president says in his statements to Free Times. “To do so would be inappropriate for many reasons, including the fact that it would infringe upon the academic freedom of our faculty. We were barred from engaging in politics when I was in the military and I have no interest in bringing that into my job now.”
Stern, the English professor, does not expect the new president to throw his weight around where classroom issues are concerned.
“I think the man himself is not looking to shut down inquiry or thought on campus — that is not my impression,” she says.
The Governor and the Board of Trustees are another story.
“I think what the board taught the students who were out there protesting and demonstrating and trying to make their voices heard through acceptable venues — I think the message that McMaster and the board sent is really reprehensible,” Stern contends. “It’s, ‘You can do all you want within the boundaries and we’re going to do whatever we want to anyway.’”
Another, more immediate concern lingers as well: the brain drain. Will faculty stay or go — and how does the Caslen controversy affect recruitment?
Over the summer, Anderson recalled a lot of knee-jerk emotional reactions, of people saying, “I’m out of here,” as soon as the news broke.
“I don’t discount that there may be some,” he says, “and the people who will leave are the ones who are most mobile, and the ones who are most mobile are the ones who are most productive.”
Such academic high achievers don’t have to stay once the environment turns ugly.
“In general, if you generate big grants and produce a lot of research and are a great teacher and all of that, your opportunities are greater if you do want to jump ship,” Anderson posits.
“Some of the people you most want to keep are the most mobile,” says Harrison. “They’re the ones that are going to have other institutions calling them saying, ‘Can we tempt you away?’ [The Caslen situation] is the kind of thing that will incline someone to listen more closely to that sort of pitch — ‘Can we tempt you to our institution? Would you be interested in bringing your research here?’”
Of course, it’s hard to tell which, if any, faculty members who might leave are leaving because of Caslen. Cooper points out that faculty have left USC for reasons besides the latest controversy — like pay, which is a persistent issue.
“The University of South Carolina is a place where the only way to get a raise is to get another job,” he says, noting the lack of merit raises, promotions and adequate cost of living increases. “If you want to improve circumstances for yourself or your family, you have to get a job elsewhere. That was the case when Harris Pastides was president and it’s the case now that Bob Caslen is president. So, that fundamental economic fact is a big push here.”
But does the controversy really make USC a less desirable place to work?
“Faculty are concerned that fallout from the presidential search has put the university under a cloud and [the possibility of an accreditation sanction] is looming,” Cooper says, “and they’re very worried that that’s going to limit their ability to recruit new colleagues.”
“I think it makes things even more difficult, especially if we’re talking about diversity hires,” Stern reasons. “It’s difficult to recruit in South Carolina just because of the history of the state. It’s a little easier now that we don’t have the Confederate flag flying [on the grounds of the Statehouse].”
Some faculty gave credit to Caslen for tackling a unique and awkward problem that he inherited as soon as he walked in the door: trying to reform a process that gave him the job in the first place.
“He has said repeatedly that he would not accept a search that brought him a panel of finalists that was all ... men,” Stern offers, “which means the search that brought him in would not be something that he would find acceptable.”
Cooper, who as Faculty Senate president has helped lead the charge against the Board of Trustees, believes Caslen has made an honest first step at bridging the huge chasm between his administration and disgruntled faculty and students.
“I think the president has been very aware and supportive of the need for a critical self-examination by the board,” Cooper says. “He’s kind of led the charge for this team of consultants from the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities to come consult with the board about its processes. So, I think that’s a very good sign.”
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