USC finalists

Finalists for University of South Carolina's next president (clockwise from upper left): John Applegate, Indiana University’s executive vice president for academic affairs; Robert Caslen Jr., a former West Point superintendent who is senior counsel to the president at the University of Central Florida; Joseph Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern University; and William Tate, vice president of graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis.

Look at the resumes of the four finalists for the University of South Carolina's next president and one sticks out:

"Developing ... leaders of character prepared to lead America’s sons and daughters in the crucible of ground combat"

"Authored the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terror"

"Business acumen and interpersonal communication skills to cultivate key partnerships across the Army, U.S. government, private sector, and academia"

These are snippets from the resume of former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen. And, based on the early handicapping, the retired three-star general is the leading candidate to assume command over South Carolina's largest college when trustees vote Friday.

There's a lot to look at. In addition to his 43-year military career, Caslen is the only USC finalist to have led a college.

During his five years in charge of the U.S. Military Academy, he launched a $425 million fundraising campaign and won $2 billion in new construction and repairs from Congress.

And he hired a football coach who has managed to beat archrival Navy three years in a row after the Black Knights lost the previous 14 matchups.

Caslen was a candidate to become the president's national security adviser two years ago. He lost the gig, despite being "from central casting" as a source told The New York Times, because Donald Trump wanted him to stay at West Point.

Caslen even found a higher education job after retiring from the Army almost a year ago. He was hired by the University of Central Florida in January to help cleanup after a spending scandal ousted several school leaders including the president, chief financial officer and board chair.

His contract could last up until August, the month after Harris Pastides leaves USC as president after 11 years.

The other finalists picked by a USC search committee last week have solid backgrounds. 

John Applegate, an executive vice president with the Indiana University system, is a Harvard law school graduate who oversees academic operations at seven campuses with 100,000 students — nearly twice as many as the entire USC system.

William Tate, graduate school dean at Washington University in St. Louis, is a finalist to become chancellor at the University of Tennessee's main campus in Knoxville. 

Joseph Walsh, research vice president at Northwestern University, is an MIT graduate who handles an annual budget of $700 million and holds eight patents.

It's possible one of these academics could be USC's next president, but they also would be skipping several steps to go from their current jobs to the top office at a large state university.

Caslen's unconventional higher education resume, South Carolina's love of the military and the Army's largest training base, Fort Jackson, being in Columbia all give him an edge.

USC's next leader will need the strength to cut costs to slow rising tuition that has grown by 43 percent in the past decade and the skills to win over a skeptical Legislature in boosting a near-national low in state funding to public colleges.

USC trustees have shown a desire to go out of the box with Pastides' successor.

Former S.C. congressman Mick Mulvaney, with all of his Washington connections and attention to finances, was considered a serious candidate last year. That flirtation ended when he was named the White House chief of staff.

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.


Traditionalists on campus would probably prefer someone like Pastides, a Yale-educated epidemiologist who was the school's research chief when he became president  in 2008.

Caslen appears to be a compromise.

He combines the background expected from a university president (he ran a college — even if it's one very different from USC) with something non-traditional (all that Army experience).

Exposure to the military culture will be seen as providing the fortitude needed to trim costs and produce changes, while making his funding pitches to lawmakers hard to resist. Who wants to say "no" to a square-jawed university president who led 23,000 troops in Iraq after surviving the 9/11 attack at the Pentagon?

Caslen will have to convince trustees, faculty, students and community leaders in meetings next week that he is the right fit after life at West Point, where he ran into some bumps: 

• Sexual assault reports rose during his tenure, but Caslen said that resulted from adopting new policies to encourage cadets come forward with complaints. "I’ve got the steel stomach to take the criticism," he told told the Associated Press.

• Caslen ended West Point's bonding tradition of pillow fights involving new cadets after 30 were injured in a 2015 brawl.

• One of out five concussions suffered at the academy came from a requirement that male cadets take a boxing class. No immediate changes were made.

• Calsen took responsibility after the football team committed recruiting violations in 2014, including serving alcohol.

It's unlikely any of that would keep Caslen from winning the job at USC, which, from all appearances, is his to lose.

Follow Shain on Facebook and Twitter

Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.