Trump Chief of Staff (copy)

In this March 22, 2018, photo, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. Mulvaney has expressed interest in leading the University of South Carolina once President Harris Pastides retires later this year. File/Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

"How low can we go?"

"April fools is still four months away."

"Guess I know where my kids aren't going."

"I may have to be a Clemson fan."

Well, that escalated quickly.

Much of the reaction last week was rather negative to word that Mick Mulvaney, a former S.C. lawmaker and congressman now in his third job in the Trump administration, would like to become the next president at the University of South Carolina after Harris Pastides retires this summer.

Mulvaney brought a lot of attention to the search for a new leader at South Carolina's largest and highest-profile state agency even before the school begins accepting applications.

He sparked debate about whether a politician — especially one tied to such an emotion-stirring president — should run a college.

This feels all too familiar to the uproar when Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell was named president of College of Charleston in 2014. McConnell came without academic experience and with an open admiration for the Confederacy.

Yet when his tenure ended last year, McConnell had not generated major controversies and was credited for deftly handling problems with fraternities and athletics teams while working to boost minority enrollment.

Mulvaney will meet a fair share of resistance if he is among the finalists.

"Oh my days please no, I don't want my senior year to be tarnished before it starts," a student lamented on Facebook.

Mark Cooper, a professor of film and media studies who is not enthused about Mulvaney, told Post and Courier education reporter Paul Bowers he believes the next president should have higher education experience, which Pastides, an epidemiologist, brought to the job in 2008.

"I can certainly respect (Mulvaney's) desire to flee the Trump administration, but I think he would find the job a big challenge," he said. "His career in public service has involved him taking some strident divisive partisan positions, and he would be really pushing the ball uphill to overcome that."

Despite the doubters, Mulvaney has a support at USC.

The acting White House chief of staff's interest has intrigued university trustees who know Pastides' successor will need to look at trimming costs to slow the tuition hikes that have angered students, parents and politicians. 

Mulvaney has long been a budget hawk but it's his ties to the funding and influence of the state Legislature, Congress and the White House that makes him a tantalizing candidate.

Some professors and students think he deserves a chance.

"It might be time to bring in someone from the outside who sees things differently," said Augie Grant, a mass communications professor and former faculty senate president. 

Azalfa Lateef, a member of the student senate who believes Mulvaney should be gauged on his qualifications not his politics, said some of the complaints come from USC being a liberal arts school with more progressive-leaning teaching.

"People are too quick to judge," the junior biochemistry major from Columbia said. 

And it doesn't hurt, too, that some key state lawmakers, who elect trustees, also back their former colleague.

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But Mulvaney brings politics to a school that has received criticism for being a bit political.

In recent years, USC hired an aide to Democratic congressman Jim Clyburn in the president's office and an aide to Vice President Joe Biden worked in the athletic department (who left to run unsuccessfully against Mulvaney for Congress in 2016).

USC got some grief for having five politicians speak at commencements in 2014 and 2015 — Biden, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

While both parties were represented, USC chose to go with a new policy to have Pastides deliver commencement addresses that would end objections.

The question remains whether Mulvaney will make a formal bid.

His Republican successor in Congress, U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman of Rock Hill, told Post and Courier political reporter Jamie Lovegrove on Friday that he had spoken to Mulvaney who shared that he is "definitely not interested — at this time."

Mulvaney is not the only politician whose name is swirling around USC's top job.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who ran for governor twice and whose father led the state's college regulator, has not ruled out applying after being approached by some fellow senators.

Sheheen said he would like to help the state but called talk about his interest "premature" since he has some unfinished work in the Statehouse, notably a bi-partisan bill that would get cash-starved state colleges more public money in exchange for slowing tuition hikes.

The USC law school grad faces a big hurdle to head up the state's flagship college: He received his undergraduate degree from Carolina's rival, Clemson University.

In the climate after Clemson's latest national football title, campus protests against a Tiger alum could outweigh those against a Trump ally.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

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.