USC president search protest (copy)

The USC Board of Trustees voted to reopen the search for a new president as about a hundred students protested outside the closed-door meeting in April where it was expected to offer the position to former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

The search for a new president of South Carolina’s flagship university has been bungled from the start.

When the University of South Carolina named its four finalists in the spring, it looked like the list had been tailored to ensure that former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen would be selected. We don’t know whether that was the intention of the search committee or of the search firm or an incorrect impression, but such deck-stacking on anyone’s part would be entirely inappropriate. And if the deck wasn’t stacked, the university needed to demonstrate that it wasn’t. It didn’t do that.

The lack of a doctoral degree shouldn’t immediately disqualify someone from serving as USC president, but it does raise questions, and Mr. Caslen and his supporters needed to make a strong public case from the outset for why his experience was more important than this standard qualification. They didn’t.

On top of that, an Army general isn’t likely to go over well on any liberal arts campus today, and Mr. Caslen’s lack of care in choosing his words when discussing sexual assault, diversity and other sensitive topics made it easy for critics to twist his meaning and whip up a fury on social media. Which of course they did.

We thought the missteps had culminated in the decision by the USC Board of Trustees to reopen the search process as about a hundred students protested outside the closed-door meeting where it was expected to offer the position to Mr. Caslen.

Clearly that was an awful situation. Even if the problem was simply that some trustees insisted on a more traditional president and some of Mr. Caslen’s supporters were unwilling to select a president without unanimous or at least overwhelming trustee support, it looked to all the world as though a small group of too-sensitive protesters had cowed the board into submission.

We understand the concerns that this whole mess could make good candidates unwilling to subject themselves to what looks like a whimsical board that allowed its decisions to be dictated by protests — particularly since the emotional center of those protests seemed to be deliberate distortions.

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But we worry that Gov. Henry McMaster’s attempt to tidy up the situation by pushing trustees to meet Friday to select Mr. Caslen will make a bad situation even worse. Even though the governor has no official power over trustees, and even though state law gives governors the (unexercised) power to chair the USC board, Mr. McMaster’s intervention has the potential to transform the emerging image of USC from one where presidential candidates have to bow to the whims of protesters into one where the politicians dictate how the school is run. To make matters worse, critics speculate that Mr. McMaster is pushing Mr. Caslen’s resurrection because President Donald Trump is a fan. There is no evidence to support this speculation, but in a world where a handful of Twitterers can upend a university’s presidential search, such speculation can do lasting damage of its own.

And for what good? Even if Mr. McMaster convinces the trustees to hire Mr. Caslen, the new president will start off in a hole. He’ll have to spend energy otherwise devoted to improving the university to instead winning the trust of trustees, who normally would start off behind a new president. He’ll face the widespread belief that his appointment was politicized. And that’s not to mention the student protesters, who will feel even more aggrieved after what they had thought was a victory in the spring.

Unless a strong majority of the trustees has become convinced that Mr. Caslen is the best president for USC, we don’t see a good ending for this. The best solution we can imagine is for the university to go forward with a new search process that is not stacked to favor anyone, and to do everything it can to avoid botching the search this time.

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