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USC board violated open-records rules to help Caslen become president: 'This is chaos'

John A. Carlos II (copy)

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

Sometimes three makes a crowd. 

With the University of South Carolina board of trustees, a gathering of three members on any committee is a quorum that triggers public notification, according to the group's bylaws.

Problem is that three members of the board's executive committee met at least twice in secret while they were trying to hire a new president. 

And in both cases, they were meeting to get retired West Point Superintendent Bob Caslen into the top job at South Carolina's largest college.

The episodes offer ammunition to critics of USC's presidential search who believe the board was not transparent and failed to follow its own rules in hiring Harris Pastides' successor.

“The more information we obtain, the more we find that certain members of the board have operated beyond rules and the law," said Marie-Louise Ramsdale, a Mount Pleasant attorney and former USC student body president who is working with a team on potential legal and legislative remedies. "We still have the unanswered question of what led to certain board members’ obsession with Caslen."

The secret meetings violated the state's open-records law and could open the university to lawsuits calling into question how Caslen was hired, said Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney who is a legal expert in journalism issues. The same could be true for group texts that trustees shared while debating Caslen's candidacy, Bender said.

Trustees said they did not realize a quorum of a committee gathered at those meetings. Board Chairman John von Lehe said Caslen was "properly elected," though some trustees remain unhappy with how it happened. 

"It's awful. You have three or four people doing board stuff with whole board not being aware of it and not authorizing it," said Charles Williams, a USC trustee critical of the president search. "This is chaos. Who's going to want to come a school with the board we've got?" 

After USC's presidential search committee interviewed a pool of semifinalists and before the finalists were announced in April, board Vice Chairman Hugh Mobley and trustees Gene Warr, Dorn Smith and Eddie Floyd flew on the university plane to New Smyrna, Fla., where Caslen has a home. Caslen, the top target for some key board members, was the only semifinalist to get a in-person visit like this, trustees said. 

"We talked about the USC job, and whether he would be interested in it," Floyd said of the April 14 visit.

Floyd was one of three members of the board's executive committee at the meeting along with Warr and Mobley — chairman of the presidential search panel.

On July 8, Von Lehe, Mobley, Warr and and trustee Thad Westbrook met with Gov. Henry McMaster, according to the governor's office. The visit came after McMaster, the ex-officio USC board chairman, called all of trustees to win a vote for Caslen, who had been passed over with other finalists in April.

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Von Lehe said trustees gathered in McMaster's office to discuss Caslen’s "continued interest and availability as a candidate." Caslen said he had an offer to become the executive board chairman at DeVry University, a for-profit college.

Von Lehe, Mobley and Warr together constituted a quorum of the executive committee.

"Board members involved inadvertently failed to recognize that they constituted a quorum of that committee," Von Lehe said. "The board members who participated in the meetings wanted to gather facts and information regarding Mr. Caslen’s candidacy. No committee action was contemplated and none occurred at these meetings."

Von Lehe said trustees will be reminded of the board's quorum and notice requirements "so that inadvertent mistakes do not occur in the future." 

USC's board has struggled to keep up with some of the intricacies of their rules during the search process.

Williams successfully stopped the first board meeting in July where a vote on Caslen was scheduled because trustees did not receive five days notice as required by state law. The board rescheduled the meeting for a week later and hired Caslen during a heated board meeting with an 11-8 vote.

Word of secret trustee meetings comes a week after USC and the governor's office released email and text messages that revealed details of the politically divisive and bitter debate over Caslen, including name-calling and intense lobbying.

This has done little to ease the anger of faculty, students and alumni who believe Caslen is not qualified to run a state flagship college because he lacks a doctorate degree and research pedigree.

Last week, the USC Faculty Senate approved a resolution asking state lawmakers to approve trustee term limits and give board voting rights to student and faculty representatives.

The demand for USC board changes is expected to grow louder as debate starts next year in the Statehouse on a bill that would cut the board size in half and let go current members.

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