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University of South Carolina's board votes to make retired Army Gen. Bob Caslen the new president at the USC Alumni Center on July 19, 2019, in Columbia. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina's accreditors will consider whether to sanction the school for Gov. Henry McMaster's role in pushing to hire former West Point Superintendent Bob Caslen.

Leaders of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges found "evidence of a significant accreditation-related issue" and referred the matter to its board to formal review at a December meeting, according to a letter received by USC on Monday.

The board could drop USC's accreditation, place the school on probation, issue a warning, decide on monitoring or vote to do nothing, said Belle Wheelan, president of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Schools that lose accreditation cannot offer student federal financial aid, though it is unlikely USC would be dropped over this single issue, Wheelan said.

Accreditors received complaints about McMaster's influence soon after a special board vote on hiring Caslen was planned in July.

Caslen was appointed soon after McMaster called trustees to request a vote. McMaster has said he was acting as the board's ex-officio board chairman as prescribed in state law.

Concerns about external influence in the presidential search are going forward despite USC telling accreditors it followed proper procedures in a letter last month. USC said Monday it will continue to work the accreditors and is committed to the group's principles of "good governance and continuous improvement."

The accreditors' letter arrived the same day as the S.C. Senate created a special panel to review the USC's controversial hiring of Caslen. 

The Senate panel will examine how the board of South Carolina's largest college chose to vote for Caslen in July, three months after passing over the retired three-star Army general and three other finalists.

The governor reached out to the retired general soon after the April vote to apologize for his treatment on campus, which included vocal protests. Caslen has detractors on campus for not having a doctorate degree typical of past presidents, and for comments that some considered insensitive. USC's top donor, Lake City financier Darla Moore, has been among the critics of the search to succeed Harris Pastides.

Emails and texts released under public-records requests showed coordination to win Caslen the job between several trustees and McMaster's chief of staff Trey Walker. They included enlisting help from former state Rep. James Smith, McMaster's Democratic opponent in the 2018 governor's race who is a major in the S.C. National Guard and USC employee.

Some trustees and university staff also texted McMaster with updates on Caslen and on the board vote. The governor met privately with four trustees ahead of the vote on Caslen in July. That gathering violated open-meeting laws because three of the trustees serve on the same committee.    

Details of the search later revealed Caslen was not among the original list of semifinalists. He was added by the chair of the search committee, board vice chairman Hugh Mobley.

Later, four trustees flew to Caslen's Florida home on a university airplane to gauge his interest in the job. The trip was another violation state open-meeting laws.

After the board decided to continue the search, trustees stayed in contact with Caslen. By then, Caslen, 65, said he had an offer to become executive chairman at DeVry University, a for-profit college. 

USC board leaders said concerns about losing Caslen to another job, and not McMaster's calls, led to them to call for a special meeting in July.

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The board hired Caslen by an 11-8 vote after a contentious trustees meeting that included protesters shouting outside the boardroom "shame, shame, shame." Caslen has been going on a tour to meet hundreds of USC and community leaders and groups since taking office Aug. 1.

But now the Legislature is getting involved examining in the search.

The Senate review panel will be led by Sen. Greg Gregory, a Lancaster Republican who sat on the USC board and supported Caslen's hiring.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia Democrat and search critic who asked for the review, is the vice chair. In requesting the panel from Senate President Harvey Peeler, Jackson said he hoped to "restore public trust in the university." He will be joined by fellow USC presidential search critic, Sen. Dick Harpootlian, whose district includes the university's campus.

Other members on the panel include Republican Sens. Tom Young of Aiken and Katrina Shealy of Lexington, who has said she felt the board was intimidated by protesters into not voting for Caslen at its first vote April and included the hashtag #InmatesRunningthePrison in a tweet about the decision.

The review panel, which has not announced a meeting date, will likely help decide the future of the USC board.

Peeler, along with Jackson and Harpootlian, introduced a bill (S.798) last spring that would cut the size of the 20-member USC board in half and release all the current trustees, several of whom have been on the board for more than 25 years.

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