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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster's office called accusations he's improperly meddling in the University of South Carolina president's search "preposterous" on Tuesday because he is a member of the school's board.

The first comments from the governor about the ongoing controversy over his backing retired three-star Army Gen. Robert Caslen as USC's new leader comes after the school's accreditor started investigating the school over McMaster's involvement in the search.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to USC President Harris Pastides this week asking the school to explain by Aug. 10 how it is following the accreditation standard that says the university's "governing board protects the institution from undue influence by external persons or bodies."

Colleges that lose accreditation are no longer eligible to receive federal loans and grants for students.

Meanwhile, a second USC trustee has come out against Caslen.

Chuck Allen, a former Gamecock football star who is an attorney in Anderson, said Tuesday he supported the former West Point superintendent when the board first reviewed presidential finalists in April, but he is bothered by the troubled search and acrimony it brought to campus.

"My reticence now stems from the multiple risks of harm the university is now confronted with," Allen said in a statement. "Alumni objections, accreditation risks, donor reaction, faculty opposition, a divided student body and athletic concerns form the basis of my judgment. ... I have simply concluded that supporting the current candidate is not in the best interests of the university at this time."

He joins trustee Charles Williams in voicing objections to voting for Caslen. Williams, an Orangeburg attorney, does not think the general, who lacks a doctorate degree or research record of previous presidents, is qualified for the post.

Most board members have not shared their views publicly ahead of a vote Friday, but Caslen has support from a slim majority of trustees, according to multiple sources.

The board is willing to elect Caslen with a split vote — something trustees, who prefer consensus, refused to do in April when they voted to reopen the search after passing over the general and three other finalists.

Some trustees have problems with how the search has become politicized, especially with McMaster's involvement. 

McMaster shot back Tuesday with his office saying the governor is allowed to be part of the search process because he is chairman of USC's board.

"To suggest that the governor, who by law is a member of the board of trustees, did anything improper is preposterous," said Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman. "Gov. McMaster has made no secret about the fact, that as a member of the Board, he believes Gen. Robert Caslen is supremely qualified and is perfectly suited to address the challenges ahead for the University of South Carolina."

The governor does not typically attend board meetings. He names a designee to sit in his place.

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Caslen was considered the favorite among the presidential finalists, but he was derailed by campus criticism and protests that no women were among the finalists and that he lacked the experience and interpersonal skills to run a state flagship college.

McMaster called Caslen to apologize after the vote and then reached out to USC trustees during July Fourth week to lobby for the general to get another chance.

Board leaders, who believe the combat veteran would be a strong president who could control costs and transform the university, sought a new vote after the push from McMaster, a USC graduate. Trustees' first attempt to vote Friday was stopped with a court order sought by Williams because the meeting was called in violation of state law.

A second meeting scheduled for Friday is expected to draw vocal protests from factions of students, faculty and alumni.

Caslen worked temporarily with the University of Central Florida as general counsel and interim chief financial officer after leaving West Point last year and retiring from the Army. He left the Orlando school after five months at the end of May when a new interim financial chief was named, UCF spokesman Chad Binette said.

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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.

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