COLUMBIA — In front of the Russell House student union on the University of South Carolina campus Monday morning, numerous groups tried to get the word out on their causes.
Members of the Delta Zeta sorority handed out packets of fruit punch with a reminder about the risks of alcohol abuse, while two other students manned a table to talk about politics with a sign reading "Ask A Socialist."
Just a few feet away on Greene Street, new university President Bob Caslen also was getting to word out.
Caslen used a pleasant October day to bring his meetings out onto the street and to see and be seen at the heart of campus, talking to his leadership team as students zipped by on bikes or skateboards.
The retired West Point superintendent sat at a table talking to advisers and making time to meet with students in an effort to build ties after his controversial selection this summer divided the campus.
Caslen said the idea to bivouac on Greene Street came up during one of his early meetings with students after he started on Aug. 1.
"I had no idea what Greene Street was," Caslen said.
He said he quickly came to see the idea as a good one.
“It’s my opportunity to reach out to students, to show that I’m approachable," Caslen said.
That is how he and his top staffers came to hold his usual Monday morning schedule planning meeting under a shade tent in the middle of the street at 8:30 a.m., while students in hoodies hustled by to get to early classes, only a few looking over to see the new university president.
Later in the morning, Caslen made himself available to several students who wanted to speak during open office hours. Mostly students brought up more mundane university concerns — parking, fees and lab facilities, Caslen said.
"It's great for me to hear them," Caslen said. "I'm not sure I would have heard them otherwise."
The controversy over his arrival adds to the importance of taking such actions to connect, Caslen acknowledged. Caslen was hired on an 11-8 vote after Gov. Henry McMaster backed the retired three-star Army general.
Some students, professors and donors balked at Caslen because he does not have a doctorate degree, possess a lengthy pedigree in higher education and made some comments they considered insensitive. USC's Faculty Senate gave the board a vote of no confidence because of the search that ended with Caslen's appointment.
"I recognize that it's my responsibility to build trust," Caslen said. "If you're going to build trust, you have got to take a step and reach out."
Susan Bon, a longtime faculty member in the College of Education, has become an adviser to Caslen in his office as holder of a presidential fellowship. She believes that Caslen has begun winning over skeptics among the faculty. She said he has been making personal connections around the university, including in her own college.
“I already saw him win over some people to realize that the process is messy but this man is not messy,” Bon said. “This is somebody who’s actually on our side.”
USC student Michal Hoge said he enjoyed talking with the president during his open office hours about a project he's working on.
"He's a phenomenal listener," Hoge said.
As for the democratic socialists at the table near Caslen, they did not queue up to talk with the university president.
Students Jake Sawyer of Columbia and Dave Johnson of Charleston said they were more focused on state and national issues, such as single-payer health care and the presidential campaign, than any political issues on campus.