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University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen. File/John A. Carlos II /Special to The Post and Courier

Races for college board seats in South Carolina usually are rather dull.

When lawmakers pick the large majority of the folks who run the state's public colleges, most incumbents run unopposed or with little serious opposition. Favored candidates rise quickly for open seats.

Well, things look like they will be different next year for the University of South Carolina.

Call it the Bob Caslen Effect: Hire a retired West Point superintendent as president in a divided vote after lobbying from the governor and despite outrage on campus.

No one is happy about how USC trustees handled the search for Harris Pastides' successor.

Caslen supporters believe trustees insulted the retired three-star Army general when they voted to continue the search in April and then took another three months to give him the job.

Caslen critics say the search was rigged to hire a one-time potential Trump administration appointee who will push to shift a liberal campus more conservative and cut programs to save money.

In the past three elections for USC board seats, just one trustee had an opponent.

Nine challengers have signed up for next year's elections.

All four trustees up for reelection who voted for Caslen have opposition, fulfilling a pledge by presidential search critics.

The trustee who led the search has a challenger, as does a former board chairman. But they are each facing a single foe.

The race for the seat from Horry and Georgetown counties is perhaps the most intriguing: Trustee Egerton Burroughs faces three challengers.

Burroughs' family helped make Myrtle Beach into a major tourism hub over the past century, but one of the region's most powerful businessmen has competition from one of the region's top lawyers, Morgan Martin.

Martin also happens to have ties within state government. He spent six years in the Statehouse in the 1990s and four years chairing the state Transportation Commission under Gov. Jim Hodges, the last Democrat in that office.

At the moment, the race between these two Horry County titans is quiet.

Martin said his desire for a USC seat is "not about Egerton," whom he called "a great fella." He has thought about running for some time, though Burroughs has been on the board since 2008. 

"I love the university," Martin said. "I want a seat at table at this election."

Martin said he is not running because of Caslen, though he notes the presidential search "from a PR standpoint did not go well."

Burroughs said he understands some folks are upset about his efforts to curb costs at USC, including voting against new dorms recently, as well as supporting Caslen, who has pledged to work on the budget to keep down tuition hikes. 

"I'm a fiscal conservative," Burroughs said. "I make no apologies for that."

He declined to address Martin's entry, though he referenced Democrats trying to win more control of the board.

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"This has got the Democrats riled up and trying to get Democrats in trustee seats," he said.

This is not the first mention of party politics in USC leadership. Trey Walker, chief of staff for Gov. Henry McMaster, bragged in a text to another trustee after Caslen's hiring: "The Democrats hate us. We took their castle."

The other challengers to Burroughs include bank president Scott Plyler, who said he will decide next month whether to continue pursuing the seat, and Jasper Ramsey Jr., whose father was mayor of Myrtle Beach in the 1950s.

Ramsey joined the race after becoming concerned about the direction of his alma mater after the presidential search. 

"At best, it was handled in an amateurish way, and at worst, it violated rules laid out by the board and the laws of South Carolina," he said.

One other USC trustee has three challengers on the opposite side of the state from Burroughs — and for the opposite reason.

Chuck Allen, an Anderson attorney and former lawmaker, voted against Caslen. The former Gamecock football star's chief competition is Phil Owens, who chaired the House Education Committee before leaving office in 2014.

This race also is a bit quiet now. Owens said he entry is not about Allen, though he said he was pleased with Caslen's hiring and supports the president's efforts to control costs.

"I just want to give something back," Owens said. 

Allen said he is ready to help Caslen while acknowledging "we have had some choppy water in last six months."

The other candidates are Walhalla attorney Emma Morris, who could not be reached for comment, and Blair Stoudemire, a 10th Circuit assistant solicitor who thinks Allen's decade on the board is long enough but had no comment on the presidential search.

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