Norman Smith

Photograph of former University of South Carolina president Norman Smith in the book "A History of the University of South Carolina 1940-2000."

If he wins the job as expected Friday, retired Army Gen. Robert Caslen will not be the first military commander to lead the University of South Carolina.

But the last time USC put a retired military officer in charge was far from a success.

In 1945, just after World War II ended, former S.C. House Speaker and USC Trustee Solomon Blatt got the board to name retired Navy Adm. Norman Smith president despite his lack of higher education experience.

Smith struggled during his seven-year tenure as he sat on state money meant to expand the campus and failed to connect with students and faculty.

“Feelings were pretty intense,” said Ken Baldwin, a retired journalist who was a USC student during Smith’s administration. “The president having gotten his job through political contacts, there was naturally going to be some friction there.”

To be sure, the situation nearly 75 years later has differences. Caslen has experience working at colleges after a successful five years leading West Point and helping the administration at the University of Central Florida for five months through a crisis this year.

But USC storylines between Smith and Caslen have some similarities. 

Both got backing from a strong politician who influenced the presidential search. Caslen's benefactor is Gov. Henry McMaster.

Both riled students and faculty. Caslen's comments on diversity and sexual assault have come under fire.

And both followed popular presidents.

Caslen would succeed Harris Pastides, who was known a good rapport with students and faculty. Smith came to campus succeeding the late Rion McKissick, who enjoyed a similar reputation, said Harry Lesesne, author of "A History of the University of South Carolina 1940-2000."

“As Mark Twain said, ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,’ ” Lesesne said. “This is definitely one of those cases when it rhymes.”

Smith was brought in to work on a controversial plan. 

Anticipating a flood of World War II veterans, Blatt wanted to move USC's campus to the outskirts of Columbia so it could expand. And just as trustees believe today that Caslen is the right person to help expand USC, Blatt believed Smith’s background as a naval construction engineer made him perfect for the job, according to “A History of the University of South Carolina 1940-2000."

Smith also had ties to the government — he was a high school classmate of a former S.C. governor and the brother of a former state House lawmaker.

“Sol Blatt really sort of controlled things at the university,” Lesesne said. “(Smith) is a guy who’s a creature of the existing political elite at the time.”

According to Lesesne's book, students, faculty and alumni protested Blatt's plans to move the campus. They wanted to find ways to expand USC at its current location.

The Senate Finance Committee agreed and shut down Blatt's proposal.

USC received state funding for a new building, but Smith’s administration sat on the money. Student complaints to the president about the cramped campus went unheeded.

“You had classrooms that were overflowing, the campus was in bad shape,” Lesesne said. “And here are these people coming back from overseas and they just feel like this administration doesn’t really care about them.”

Smith’s militaristic leadership style didn’t sit well with students who after serving in the war wanted to think only about earning a degree and starting a new life. 

Faculty also felt Smith couldn’t relate to them or tend to their needs because of his lack of higher education experience, Lesesne said.

Students were so frustrated they booed Smith at a football game and even hanged an effigy of him.

“The significance to me is that a corrupt political machine puts undesirable men in important places,” USC student R.A. Culbertson said in 1946, according to the book. “Mr. Smith is as much at sea here as a retired professor would be if in command of a battleship.”

Students stopped protesting after Smith's first two years, Lesesne said. 

Since he didn’t accept presidential perks such as a car and worked for $1 during his last year, Smith helped fund several new buildings on campus including an administration building.

In 1952, after a presidency that disappointed students, faculty and even the politicians who originally got Smith the job, the admiral resigned from USC. 

How Caslen would run USC if hired is unclear. He is seen as a good presidential candidate by Statehouse leaders and many who worked with him when the general led West Point.

“Somebody’s talents that you recognize in one field of endeavor don’t necessarily translate to another. Does that mean Caslen will not be successful? No, it does not,” Lesesne said. “He will be successful or unsuccessful based on what he does as president.”

Early reaction from some groups on campus has been negative with Caslen receiving a large number of critical comments when the school asked for public input. The Faculty Senate gave the general a vote of no confidence.

Still Caslen is the favorite of McMaster, the board chair who called trustees seeking support for the general.

Students and faculty are again suspicious that politics have snuck their way into university affairs. They’ve held meetings and shared the hashtag #NotBehindMyBackHenryMac over the past week, calling for a new and more transparent search process.

“He’s going to be under a microscope, just like Smith was,” Lesesne said.

Longtime USC board member Eddie Floyd believes the governor has not influenced other members’ decision.

“I think (Caslen) did a wonderful job at West Point ... and I think he’s a true leader,” Floyd said. “(McMaster) feels strongly about him personally, but I don’t think he changed one vote.”

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