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Meeting postponed as presidential search splits university

July 11, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A special meeting Friday where trustees at the University of South Carolina were expected to vote on a new president was postponed by a judge just minutes before the governor himself made a request to delay it.

When Thursday started, trustees appeared ready to hire the candidate who was the focus of student protests and faculty complaints that derailed an April vote — retired Army three-star general and West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen.

But a judge agreed Thursday afternoon with trustee Charlie Williams and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin who said the university was breaking a law that requires notice of any meeting to be mailed to trustees at least five days before they gather. Williams said he first heard of the meeting Tuesday.

Williams said Gov. Henry McMaster, the ex officio chairman of the university board, is pushing to have Caslen elected president. The governor has not addressed Williams’ comments and had no public appearances where he could be questioned this week — a rarity for McMaster.

The governor did issue a letter that his spokesman said was being finalized just as the judge ruled. The letter asked the chairman of the Board of Trustees to delay Friday’s meeting “both for the convenience of those involved and to eliminate any unnecessary distractions or concerns regarding the timing of the special meeting.”

A new date for a meeting has not been set.

Williams is the only trustee on the 20-member board to speak about the meeting publicly.

Students had planned to protest Friday’s meeting, taking place in the middle of the summer when many of them are away.

The university’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution Thursday asking trustees to not vote and saying they have no confidence Caslen can run the school.

There is a political split too. Democratic state senators joined with South Carolina’s only Democratic U.S. Representative, Jim Clyburn, in asking that Friday’s meeting be canceled.

“An illegitimate process will yield illegitimate results,” said Benjamin, who along with being Columbia’s mayor also is a university graduate and Democrat.

Republicans have been mostly quiet, with a few lawmakers saying Caslen at least deserved an up or down vote from trustees. Trustees unanimously agreed at their April 26 meeting to “continue the search,” according to the board’s minutes.

Initial protests over the presidential search came when the four finalists were all men. But as Caslen emerged as the front-runner, students were unhappy with his comment during a forum that binge drinking was a big factor in sexual assaults. Faculty members worried about his lack of a doctoral degree or research university experience.

Supporters of Caslen said he not only successfully raised private money while running West Point, but also lobbied Congress for more money too. They cite his tendency toward conservative spending which could be important for a school with hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, much for construction projects.

The university is replacing a beloved and charismatic president Harris Pastides. He could often be found walking around campus, taking to students and snapping selfies .

Pastides, like his two predecessors, was elected with a unanimous vote. Trustees have said that sends a message that the school is united behind a new leader. Williams has said the vote could be split, requiring the governor to cast the decisive ballot.

Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson said that kind of division could linger for years and cause any president problems, especially one with little student or faculty support. He suspects trustees who vote for Caslen could find their positions challenged. Supporters of Caslen have suggested the same thing to those trustees against him.

“We didn’t elect or select the board to be a puppet for anyone,” Jackson said.

After the presidential vote was postponed in April, South Carolina Senate President Harvey Peeler introduced a bill that would remove all the trustees at the end of June 2020 and hold new elections, cutting the number of members to 11.

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Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .

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