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USC board emails, texts show how much trustees bickered over picking Caslen as president

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Bob Caslen (copy)

Newly appointed University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen speaks to reporters on Monday, July 22, 2019, in Columbia. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina trustees lobbied each other, insulted colleagues and debated liberal bias on college campuses as they argued over hiring former West Point Superintendent Bob Caslen as the school's new president.

"The Democrats hate us. We took their castle," Trey Walker, Gov. Henry McMaster's chief of staff, texted to trustee Dan Adams after Caslen won USC board approval on July 19. "It's our turn!!" replied Adams, a McMaster appointee.

Hundreds of emails and text messages from USC board members released Tuesday show a divided board arguing this summer over the cost to USC's reputation of appointing Caslen, whose lack of academic experience and verbal mishaps angered students, faculty and top donors.

The governor, who is the ex officio chairman of the USC board, called trustees soon after a June meeting with board chairman John von Lehe to encourage a vote on Caslen.

"Rose, this is Henry McMaster. I'd like to speak with you about General Caslan (sic). Please call whn (sic) you have a moment," the governor texted trustee Rose Newton.

Trustee Thad Westbrook, a supporter of the retired three-star general, texted that "Henry's willing to do anything else we need to recruit Caslen."

Concerns arose when USC's accreditors expressed concern about McMaster's involvement. "This issue goes away if we don't hire this guy," trustee Toney Lister wrote.

Lister also suggested McMaster was calling the shots, a charge von Lehe has denied. "We, as a board, are divided and looking awful because of Henry," Lister wrote.

Caslen backers sought help from former USC President Harris Pastides.

Westbrook said Pastides wanted the board to vote for Caslen and could help ease him onto the divided campus. "He thinks Caslen is an academic," Westbrook texted. Caslen foes objected to him not having a doctorate degree.

Lobbying was intense. Calsen's detractors thought at one point that they had the 10 votes needed to stop his hiring.

But state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who sits on the board, changed her vote after supporting the board's April decision to continue its search rather than have a president chosen by a divided board.

Trustee Charles Williams asked Spearman to put the school over her allegiance to McMaster, a fellow Republican. "I understand your political considerations, but I believe in the bottom of my heart as Trustees our fiduciary duties are to the best interests of the university."

Spearman replied that she spoke with Caslen and appreciated his pledge to support K-12 education improvements in the state. The board hired Caslen on an 11-8 vote with one member voting "present."  

Spearman won praise from von Lehe, who emailed after the vote: "You did so well at ten (sic) Board meeting. You are the kind of person that I would want to be with in a foxhole." 

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Williams, an Orangeburg attorney, was a lightning rod in the Caslen debate.

He texted to trustee Leah Moody that trying to sway "the two morons appointed by the governor are a waste of time."

An unsigned text to Adams referenced Williams' 2017 fine for killing red-tailed hawks: "Tell Charlie that next Friday is when the hawks will be all over his quail eggs."

Political ideology also became part of the USC president debate. 

As Williams lobbied him to vote against Caslen, trustee Bubba Fennell said he couldn't because, he wrote, "I watched Fox News and the radical left is trying to control all conservatives on University campuses, including our Board. I was already in favor of Caslen and when the radical left faculty and students 'threatened' us, several members jumped ship — not me!!" 

Williams, who gave a 40-minute speech against Caslen before the board, said he understood state lawmakers were mad that one of their own, Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, was not named USC's president.

Sheheen, who ran twice unsuccessfully for governor, has never acknowledged he applied for the job, but Williams said in an email that lawmakers' anger over snubbing the senator could boost chances for a bill that would cut the size of USC's board in half and kick out all current trustees. 

"Please don't let politics ruin the University," Williams wrote to fellow trustees.

Other names were floated to succeed Pastides, who retired after 11 years in July.

Lake City financier Darla Moore, the school's biggest benefactor, was discussed. "She knows the positions in the University. She knows the board. She has a track record. Think about it. She is the answer," a message in a text stream supplied by Moody read. Moore sent a letter to trustees on the eve of the vote opposing Caslen.

Moody, the only African American on the USC board, ended text conversations with "God save the University" and thought trustees should have hired William Tate, dean of graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis. Tate was the most well received by students and faculty of the four USC presidential finalists and the only African American among the group.

James Burns, a former chief of staff for Gov. Nikki Haley and a Navy veteran, brought up several other former military leaders as potential candidates to William Hubbard, a USC trustee who works with Burns at the Nelson Mullins law firm.

Burns' suggestions included former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, according to emails Hubbard provided. 

After Hubbard passed along the suggestions to the search committee in December, Mobley replied: "Interesting as I am getting a number of political recommendations. I would encourage all to apply and let the process yield the best person for us."

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