COLUMBIA — In a move unprecedented in recent memory, Gov. Henry McMaster could preside over a University of South Carolina board meeting Friday to force trustees to vote on making a former West Point leader the school's new president despite protests from students and faculty, sources told The Post and Courier.
McMaster called trustees last week to lobby for Robert Caslen, a retired three-star Army general who worked at the University of Central Florida, USC board member Charles Williams said. The governor hinted that Caslen, a finalist to become President Donald Trump's national security adviser, could bring a large Army contract to South Carolina's largest college if he were in charge, Williams said.
"That is a joke," said Williams, who opposes Caslen. "Why bring in a controversial candidate who divided the campus so much? We can find someone a hell of a lot better."
Williams said McMaster told him that he has not met Caslen, a 65-year-old who does not have a doctorate degree usually held by major university presidents.
"I don't know what he's thinking," said Williams, an Orangeburg attorney, of McMaster. "This is not a military college. Things are going well here. We're not in a crisis.
"If we do this, then we'll start taking steps back," Williams added. "He (Caslen) has no vision. And he's retired. We don't need a retired person to lead the university. Look at the football team. (Former head coaches) Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier came in and they let it all fall apart."
Williams said the board is evenly split on Caslen, who along with three other finalists was passed over after a contentious debate in April. Trustees have said they are reluctant to hire a president who would oversee eight campuses with more than 50,000 students without unanimous support.
McMaster lobbying for Caslen as USC's de facto board leader could run afoul of the agency that oversees college accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges standards frown on "undue political influence" in college governance and is working on an agreement with the state of Alabama over the governor leading colleges in that state.
"This raises concerns," commission president Belle Wheelan said about the situation in South Carolina.
The board vote would come when most students and faculty are not on campus during the summer. Still, a protest is planned at the board meeting Friday, said Isabella Williams, an Honors College student.
The vote comes months ahead of the Legislature considering a bill introduced by Senate President Harvey Peeler that would cut the size of USC's 17-member board in half and remove current members. Peeler said he would not withdraw his bill even if USC hires Caslen.
Caslen, considered the front-runner among USC presidential finalists, upset students and faculty during his campus visit with comments that suggested binge drinking contributed to sexual assault and that West Point improved diversity without lowering standards for minority cadets. Public comments the board received about Caslen were overwhelmingly negative.
Still, Caslen told The Post and Courier in May that he would consider taking the USC job after receiving shows of support, including a call from McMaster. Caslen could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
McMaster shared with trustees that he was unhappy about Caslen's treatment on campus, which included a group of protesters shouting in the lobby of the building where trustees voted surprisingly to reopen the presidential search in April. The Republican governor also was an early backer of Trump, who has praised Caslen's five-year stint at West Point.
Caslen's rejection pushed McMaster to consider taking temporary direct control of the board, according to three sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The governor is technically the chair of the USC board, according to state law. The governor appoints a designee, currently Greenville investment banker Dan Adams, to sit on the board. Longtime political observers cannot recall a sitting governor taking over a USC board meeting.
"This makes me sick," tweeted former USC student government president Taylor Wright, who was on the presidential search committee. "Ignoring the (very serious & credible) concerns of the majority of the students, faculty, & staff is wrong on every level."
Eddie Floyd, who is USC's current longest-serving board member, said he has no issues with input from McMaster, a USC graduate hired at one point by the college as a fundraiser for its new $80 million law school building.
"I would hope the governor has a say-so," said Floyd, a Florence surgeon. "He's had more involvement in the university than other governors in recent years."
USC board vice chairman Hugh Mobley, who is leading the presidential search, said in May that the four passed-over finalists, including Caslen, remain active candidates for the job.
Two of the finalists, John Applegate from Indiana University and Jay Walsh from Northwestern University, said they are no longer interested in USC after not getting picked. William Tate from Washington University in St. Louis declined to comment.
The search committee has not met since the board voted to continue looking for a new president.
McMaster's office and USC had no comment about the board meeting that has not yet been scheduled publicly.
USC President Harris Pastides retires after 11 years at the end of July. USC Upstate chancellor Brendan Kelly was named interim president.
Caslen was considered the favorite to succeed Pastides because he was the only college president among the finalists and was an outside-the-box choice who could shake up the university after leadership under academics.
"It was a weak, weak group of finalists," said Williams, whose law partner is a Democratic state senator. "He looked good compared to the other people. But he was the wrong choice."