A new president to lead the University of South Carolina is expected to be selected on Friday. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's largest university picks a new president Friday whose first task could be repairing a campus fractured by complaints over school leaders failing to include any women among the finalists.

University of South Carolina trustees are going ahead with choosing a successor to the retiring Harris Pastides despite a letter signed by more than 40 student groups and 100 faculty members asking to reopen the search.

"Ignoring the outrage is insulting," said Nate Duvall, a senior economics major from New Jersey who is among the USC students leading protests.  

After meeting with students, faculty and community leaders this week, the four presidential finalists will interview with USC trustees on Friday. Trustees will then deliberate and make a final decision.

Robert Caslen, a retired three-star Army general and former West Point superintendent who is working at the University of Central Florida, is considered the front-runner because of the nontraditional college background he would bring to Columbia.

USC leaders are looking to make changes to stem rising costs and tuition hikes since South Carolina public colleges receive near-national low financial support from the state Legislature. Caslen, 65, would win favor in a pro-military, conservative-dominated state. 

The other finalists to oversee more than 50,000 students on eight campuses are more traditional academics: John Applegate, Indiana University’s system executive vice president for academic affairs; William Tate, vice president of graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis; and Joseph Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern University.

All four men are trying to lead a state university system where women make up a majority of students. They all pledged to address diversity in talks on the Columbia campus, but resentment about their selection lingers. 

"​It doesn't look like they went out to find the best qualified finalists but to find the best qualified man," Duvall said.

The lack of a president or provost from a major university among the finalists irked some USC supporters.

"I felt they did not have the quality that our university deserves," said Dot Ryall, a Columbia art consultant and USC graduate who has helped the university's public art efforts. "It tells me we are not who we think we are if we're not drawing top-notch people with top-notch resumes."

Ryall was not happy Caslen, the leading candidate, does not have a doctorate degree, usually standard for university presidents.

"That sends a message to students: 'Why bother,' " Ryall said.

Despite the criticism, USC trustees have no plans to halt choosing a new president, board Chairman John von Lehe said Thursday. A delay is not fair to the current finalists who have committed their time to come to South Carolina for interviews, he said. 

"Do I regret that we do not have a woman among the four finalists? Yes," said von Lehe, who was not on the search committee. "It was not what we intended, but it turned out that way."

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Von Lehe said the search committee had a female semifinalist who would likely have been a finalist and could have been chosen president. But the female candidate, whom von Lehe would not name, withdrew before the semifinalist interviews to take another post.

Some students and faculty blamed the makeup of USC's search committee that included nine men and two women from the board as well as faculty, student and alumni leaders.

Five trustees were named to the committee, including Rock Hill attorney Leah Moody, one of two women on the USC board. Von Lehe said having a "seasoned and knowledgeable" trustee like Moody on the presidential search panel ensured the school tried to land a female finalist.

"I have confidence that the process took its proper shape," he said.

Megan Rigabar, a global studies and Spanish major from St. Louis who along with other USC activists read the protest letter during presidential forums this week, said she hopes school trustees and leaders are willing to meet with concerned faculty and students to find better transparency.  

The next president will have to handle the fallout, activists said.

"This has started to have a ripple effect," said Sonna Boothroyd, a social work major from Greer. "We need to get to the bottom of this, make changes and create an atmosphere on campus to make sure this won't happen again."

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