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USC hires President Caslen's former West Point chief of staff for same role in Columbia

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Mark Bieger

Mark Bieger was named the University of South Carolina's new chief of staff on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Provided

COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina has again gone into the ranks of the U.S. Military Academy to fill a top post.

Six months after USC hired former West Point superintendent Bob Caslen to be its new president, the school named West Point's former chief of staff to do the same job at USC.

Mark Bieger, the U.S. Military Academy's chief of staff for the past three years, was chosen for the $220,000-a-year job after a panel that included Caslen reviewed four finalists before the Christmas holidays, Caslen adviser Rob Godfrey said Monday.

The move reunites the pair in academic management while adding more military experience to the president's office at the state's largest college.

Caslen, a retired three-star general, arrived in Columbia in August after spending five years leading West Point, including nearly two years with Bieger by his side.

The names of the other three chief of staff finalists were not released, but Godfrey said the group included a woman and an African American. 

Also Monday, Caslen appointed former state Rep. James Smith as his interim special assistant to the president after spending months as an adviser to the president.

James Smith (copy) (copy) (copy)

James Smith. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The announcement formalized Smith's move to USC's administration office after leading military programs and strategies for the university's online education program.

Smith came to USC last year after the longtime House Democratic leader ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 against Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.

Smith has escorted Caslen to events off campus since the general was hired after a divisive 11-8 board vote in July. Smith flew on the university plane to pick up Caslen to bring him to campus after the vote. Smith will continue earning $140,000 a year, Godfrey said.

"James was an invaluable asset when I first took over, navigating the complex dynamics among faculty, student body, alumni, legislators, local politicians and leaders of influence," Caslen said in a statement. "I have grown to trust him and to count on his judgment, as I recognize the need to continue to build these relationships."

Caslen, a veteran of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who was in the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack and a finalist to become Donald Trump's national security adviser, is surrounding himself with a staff with military experience at his office at USC.

Bieger is a former colonel who spent two tours in Iraq. Smith is a major in the S.C. National Guard who fought in Afghanistan. Neither have extensive higher education experience, a knock on Caslen as well. 

"To bring in an external chief of staff when you don't know the university seems strange," said Bethany Bell, a social work professor and Caslen critic said about Bieger. 

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Bell said adding another white man to Caslen's office does not fulfill the new president's promised commitment to diversity.

Caslen's inner circle includes Godfrey, one-time communications chief for Gov. Nikki Haley; executive assistant Susan Bon, an education professor who trains ROTC officers before they head to colleges across the country; consultant Paula Harper Bethea, a former S.C. Education Lottery director; and Senior Vice President for Administration Ed Walton.

That group does not contain a person of color. Pressure could mount for more diversity in hiring for other executive positions. Caslen is looking to bring in a provost and vice president for diversity as well as chief operating, finance, development, and communication officers.

The job opening for the chief of staff, the primary liaison between Caslen and USC staff, was posted for five days in November, which drew criticism that the president had a preferred candidate. Still, the job drew 37 applicants. The three-member panel who reviewed the finalists were Caslen, Bon and Interim Vice President for Diversity John Dozier, who is African American.

They chose Bieger, a decorated combat veteran who Caslen said he brings "extraordinary leadership and administrative experience."  

"Mark shares my priorities of high character, academic and research excellence, diversity and inclusion," Caslen said in a statement. "He is the perfect choice to lead my team, and he is a leader whom I have worked closely with before and whom I have the utmost trust and confidence in."

Bieger has ties to Columbia, where he spent three years commanding the 171st Infantry Brigade at Fort Jackson from 2012 to 2014. His son graduated from Hammond School. 

"The university powers the state's economic development engine, there is tremendous momentum behind it thanks to gifted students, researchers and faculty, and I can't wait to get to work with President Caslen and the entire Carolina community to make a difference for students and keep the university moving in the right direction," Bieger said in a statement.

Caslen was hired despite vocal protests that the 43-year Army veteran did not have enough higher education experience outside of a military academy and lacked a doctorate and research pedigree of predecessors.

His search led to scrutiny by accreditors for McMaster's role in lobbying for Caslen, but the school avoided any sanctions.

USC board members who back Caslen said they wanted an outsider who would control costs and lower annual tuition hikes. Caslen also pledged to use his contacts to win more military research work for USC.

Caslen succeeded Harris Pastides, a university insider who retired after 11 years of leading the flagship school with eight campuses and 51,000 students.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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