In his eight years as a trustee of the University of South Carolina, Charles H. Williams said he’d never gotten a call from the governor about university business. So Willliams was surprised when Henry McMaster, South Carolina’s Republican governor, called him last Friday, the day after the Fourth of July, telling him who to hire as the next university president.
“I flatly told him,” Williams said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to support him.’”
“I flatly told him. I said, 'I'm not going to support him.'”
It was a strange request because the Board of Trustees had already decided to extend its search after considering the governor’s pick, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., a former superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. But still, according to Williams, McMaster wanted the trustees to vote on Caslen and threatened to call the vote himself if the board chair did not.
A few days later, the board chairman did, and a vote was scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. On Thursday afternoon, the South Carolina newspaper The State reported that a judge had ordered the vote be postponed, because the trustees had not been given enough notice before the meeting.
Caslen was one of 11 semifinalists and, later, four finalists that a university search committee considered for president this past spring after Harris Pastides, the current president, announced he would step down. Students and faculty members objected to the lack of diversity within the search committee and among the candidates. In a letter to the university’s trustees, they noted that all 11 of the semifinalists were men. The State reported that of the four finalists, three were white.
“We were given a search committee that looked nothing like the body it was supposed to represent,” the letter said. “They gave us a finalist pool that is not representative of the students they are trying to lead.”
Some students objected to Caslen, specifically. They were disturbed by comments he made in a forum, where he suggested that alcohol consumption on campus caused sexual assault, The State reported. He also said that West Point was able to increase diversity without lowering standards, The Post and Courier reported.
Students and faculty members demanded in their letter that the search committee “start again.” And, surprisingly, the trustees agreed. They voted in April to continue the search process and appointed the chancellor of the University of South Carolina Upstate, Brendan Kelly, as interim president. "It appeared they had moved on from Caslen and the three other finalists," The State reported.
That seemed to be the plan until last week. Williams said he wasn’t the only trustee to get a call from the governor, who he said wanted the trustees to vote on Caslen, not on any of the other candidates. On Tuesday, Williams said, the board chair, John C. von Lehe Jr., called a vote. Other members of the board, including von Lehe, either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
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Williams said he believes that a vote will divide the board, but that Caslen’s supporters could win by a thin margin. He said that his issue wasn’t necessarily with Caslen but that the governor’s intervention was inappropriate in this case.
“We had a process,” he said.
Students and faculty members circulated a letter this week urging the university’s trustees not to cave to the governor’s pressure.
“To support Caslen in this context is to ignore the community’s voice, to disregard the principles which are meant to bind us, and to demonstrate a so-called leadership that is unacceptable,” the letter said.
Some of the state’s Democratic lawmakers have also weighed in. State Sen. Darrell Jackson, a member of the Senate’s higher-education subcommittee, said in a statement that the Board of Trustees had its reasons for not voting for the original four finalists and that those reasons had not changed.
“I hope that the Board will have the courage to do what’s right, and follow their own process,” Jackson said in the statement. “The Governor should be reminded that the President of the University of South Carolina is not a cabinet position.”
McMaster’s office did not return a request for comment. A university spokesman confirmed that the Friday vote had been canceled but could not say whether it would be rescheduled.