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USC board chairman John von Lehe (center), board vice chairman Hugh Mobley (right) and board secretary Cantey Heath begin the meeting to vote on the new president of the University of South Carolina on Friday July 19, 2019, in Columbia. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina trustees are mounting an effort to remove the board's top two leaders after a tortured search for a new president.

Chairman Jon von Lehe and Vice Chairman Hugh Mobley could face a vote of no confidence at a board meeting Friday if they don't step down from their leadership posts, four trustees told The Post and Courier on Tuesday.

Trustees are upset over the handling of the USC presidential search that ended with the hiring of former West Point Superintendent Bob Caslen in July, three months after the board passed over the retired Army general and three other finalists because they could not reach unanimous consensus.

After the first failed vote, Gov. Henry McMaster, a board member himself, called trustees to encourage them to hire Caslen, whose comments and lack of higher education experience divided the campus.

Caslen was elected 11-8 with one trustee voting "present" as protesters outside the boardroom chanted "shame, shame, shame."

Removing von Lehe, a Charleston attorney, and Mobley, a Lancaster pharmacist who led the presidential search committee, from their leadership posts would begin healing from the fractured search, said the four trustees, some of whom voted for Caslen and some who did not. The trustees asked that their names not be revealed because of the sensitivity of negotiations.

Von Lehe and Mobley have been asked to step down voluntarily. If they don't resign, trustees said they have enough support to amend the board bylaws and remove their titles after a vote of no confidence.

Von Lehe and Mobley told The Post and Courier they plan to continue serving in their top jobs when the board gathers Friday. The pair, who have one more year in their leadership posts, declined further comment. Mobley's board seat is up for re-election with the Legislature next year. Von Lehe's term runs through 2022.

Florence surgeon Eddie Floyd, the longest-serving USC trustee at 37 years, said he cannot recall an attempt to remove a sitting board chairman or vice chairman. 

"I'm not saying we got everything exactly right, but I'm not in favor of this," Floyd said.

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The push to remove trustee leaders comes a week before a state Senate panel holds the first hearing on a bill that would reduce the 20-member board by half and remove all the current members.

"They're looking for someone to take the fall with members of the Legislature who are unhappy," said Sen. Greg Gregory, a Lancaster Republican who sat on the USC board. "I think it's absurd. This rips a scab off everything."

The search for a successor to Harris Pastides, who retired after 11 years in July, hit a snag when four finalists did not include a woman and featured only one person who held a top-level college post, Caslen. Caslen was the favorite of a majority of the board who thought he would be an unconventional leader of South Carolina's largest college capable of cutting costs and limiting tuition hikes. He also is seen as a conduit to winning military contracts.

Caslen, a combat veteran who retired after 43 years in the Army in 2018, then made comments some believed blamed victims for sexual assault and criticized diversity efforts. Caslen apologized for his comments, adding that his record at West Point shows his support for stopping sexual assault and boosting diversity. 

Caslen started Aug. 1, promising at his introductory news conference to make USC a "preeminent" college in the nation.

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