Robert Caslen, superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy for five years, could become the next president at the University of South Carolina. File/Spc. Anna Pol/U.S. Army

COLUMBIA — Many University of South Carolina students, faculty and alumni are upset again that the state's largest college wants to hire a former West Point leader who they think is unqualified as its new president.

Trustees are expected to elect retired three-star Army Gen. Robert Caslen as the school's president at a special meeting Friday, just two months after the board passed over the general and three other finalists and decided to reopen the search.

USC's Faculty Senate is holding an emergency meeting Thursday where professors could condemn the board for scheduling a vote after Gov. Henry McMaster lobbied all of the trustees to reconsider Caslen. On Wednesday evening, students gathered for a campus forum complained about the vote taking place during the sparsely populated summer semester.

"It's just unrealistic to think that this could ever fly with our university and that the students are going to have any support whatsoever of what goes on," USC student Natalie Grube, 20, told a crowd of more than 60 students. "And I feel if we waited and did this the right way ... it may not be as hard a transition."

Ken Baldwin, a retired journalist and media executive who has contributed more than $2 million to USC, said he might not give any more money to his alma mater if trustees hire Caslen, who lacks a traditional higher education background. 

"He might be out of box, but he's not out of the right box," Baldwin said. "They're trying to railroad the guy through. This makes no sense."

This spring, campus factions were angered at first when USC's presidential search committee failed to name a female finalist. But their ire turned to Caslen, the favorite as the only college president among finalists, because he does not have a doctorate degree and research background usually associated with major college presidents.

Foes raged against Caslen for comments he made during a public forum that they felt blamed binge drinking for sexual assault and suggested he did not know how a large public university works. Some on campus also did not like that he was a combat veteran who authored a major plan for the war on terror and was a finalist to become President Donald Trump's national security adviser.

Public comments submitted about Caslen were overwhelmingly negative compared with the other finalists.

"The comments showed he didn't connect with the campus communities," said Mark Cooper, chair-elect of the USC Faculty Senate. "If he comes here, he is going to have to spend some time learning what kind of this place this is."

USC student meeting

University of South Carolina sophomore Riley Lankes said during a forum Wednesday that he believes students do not have enough access to the presidential search process.

Caslen, who worked at the University of Central Florida, has support at the Statehouse where the USC president must work with lawmakers to win millions in funding. During his five years in charge of the U.S. Military Academy, Caslen launched a $425 million fundraising campaign and won $2 billion in new construction and repairs from Congress. 

State Sen. Greg Gregory, a Lancaster Republican who sat on the USC board, said McMaster as the de facto chairman of the school's board is within his authority to lobby for Caslen. Gregory expects Caslen would stay about five years to help raise money and control expenses, including debt that has doubled in a decade to $500 million with a massive construction spree.

"The general is the type of leaders the university needs," Gregory said. "We need someone to come in and make tough decisions that will right the ship. The academics and deans aren't going to, and the board is going to want to do it."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, considered the state's most powerful lawmaker, said Caslen should get a chance to succeed like former Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who completed a successful stint leading the College of Charleston despite having no prior higher education experience. Caslen's 43-year military career is an asset, including an ability to win federal contracts, the Florence Republican said. 

"He's been in tough positions and made tough decisions that I'm not sure you learn by getting a doctoral degree," Leatherman said.

McMaster's office did not have any comment Wednesday, and Caslen and USC board Chairman John von Lehe did not return calls.

The board reopened the search in April because of a contentious debate over Caslen, who drew protesters to the trustees meeting, several sources have told The Post and Courier. A slim majority of the board backed the general at the time, but trustees have preferred a unanimous vote in a show of support for a new president. No new search began while Caslen supporters worked to get him up for a vote.

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Caslen is not expected be a unanimous choice on Friday.

Charles Williams, a trustee from Orangeburg, said he opposes Caslen because he lacks the qualifications and experience to run a large flagship state college. And he thinks McMaster, who could preside over the meeting Friday as allowed by state law, crossed a line.

"If this is not political influence, I don't know what is," Williams said.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was among capital-area politicians who asked trustees to call off the Friday meeting and continue the search. He worried that the governor's lobbying could hurt USC's accreditation, which forbids political involvement in school management.

"An illegitimate process will only yield illegitimate results," said Benjamin, a former USC student government president. "This cloud of haste and lack of transparency does disservice to everyone."​

Several petitions are circulating online to protest McMaster's involvement in the search and the board's quick vote.

"Permitting the Board of Trustees to select a president without the input and sentiments of most of the students, faculty or staff is a move that would set the tone for that president’s tenure and the university’s overall approach," reads a petition signed by dozens of graduates, including former student government President Taylor Wright, who served on the presidential search committee. 

T. Michael Boddie contributed to this report.

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