President-elect Bob Caslen, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Gamecock, discussed the controversy surrounding his election, misconceptions, new traditions he plans to start and the Association of Governing Boards, a consulting firm that will be looking into the board of trustees' governance.
Jeff Stensland, USC's public relations director, and James Smith, former candidate for South Carolina governor, accompanied Caslen in the interview.
In April, the board of trustees decided to suspend its presidential vote on Caslen while student and faculty protesters waited outside the chambers. Brendan Kelly was named interim and set to start on Aug. 1 until two weeks ago, when Gov. Henry McMaster forced the board of trustees to a presidential vote on Caslen leading students, faculty, alumni and Columbia politicians to hold protests and rallies. On Friday, Caslen was named the 29th president of USC.
TDG: What do you make of all of the controversy surrounding your appointment dating back from April to now?
BC: Well, first of all, I fought for the right for people to protest, and the fact that they did, and they exercised their rights of freedom of speech, I think was helpful. Frankly, going into a position like this, it’s important to hear from all constituents across the entire spectrum of ideas. ... If I want to be a leader of the constituents, I want to be a leader of everybody, so it’s important to me to understand where people are coming from, what their concerns are, what their issues are, what the faults that they have with me and me representing them, it’s important for me to understand them so that I can address them. Not to provide an answer, but to make the necessary changes. A leader has to hold himself or herself up to the criticism that’s out there. If he or she fails to do that, he becomes myopic in his thinking, and if you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to be a leader of everyone, you’ve got to understand where everyone is coming from. If you just hear the word but fail to address them, then you’re a hypocrite. You’ve got to be out there and doing what’s right for everybody. So I saw it as a healthy process, I was not offended at all.
Editor's note: There was a lack of racial and gender diversity in the pool of candidates included in the presidential search which began after President Pastides' announcement of retirement last October. Students and faculty attended the open forums of the four presidential candidates and raised the lack of diversity as an issue in the search process. Also, involved in the search process was Gov. McMaster's decision to exercise his legal but controversial efforts in directing a presidential vote on Caslen.
TDG: The faculty previously had a vote of no confidence in you as president. What do you make of that and how do you plan to approach building a relationship with the faculty now that you are president?
BC: Well, that's OK. The fact that I'm a nontraditional president, which means I did not come up through higher education, and I didn't have a career in higher education where I got a doctorate, it requires me to know my constituencies better. It requires me, in order to do that, to spend more time and energy, and by spending more time and energy with the faculty, I will get to know them, and I will get to know their needs. I come in with no preconceived notions whatsoever, because I don't understand their life and their career path as they do. ... I had lunch with the senior leadership of the faculty yesterday, and my comments were “What do I need to do to help you? What do I need to do as your president so that I can represent you, so that I can provide the programs or resources that are necessary for your work?” To me, that's an advantage to them. ... Since I'm the president that has oversight of resources within this organization, I can put the resources where they need to be based on my efforts to be able to make sure I know them. I’m going to be their strongest advocate. They have no idea how big of an impact I want to be for them. I’m going to meet with the faculty senate, if they let me, at least once a month. Then I sit down with them, and they can lay out whatever issue that they want. I did this at West Point. ... I'm going to do the same thing with our faculty senate. They may still give me no confidence, but that's OK. I understand. You know, I’d probably do the same thing if I was in their shoes. But they'll never have a president that will care for them as much as I do.
TDG: Do you think the search process was fair? Why or why not? Where were you and what day was it when you got the call that the BoT was reconsidering your candidacy?
BC: Well, it depends on who you look at. I mean it's fair for me because I was selected to be one of the finalists. But if you look at it from a diversity perspective, particularly when the majority of the student demographics include females, the majority, then you got to see that the results of the search process and why did it not include women as one of the candidates. You gotta ask question. Now there's an answer. I don't know the procedure or what took place. Evidently there were some that pulled themselves out at the last minute, that sort of thing. But that's very naive on the process because all I know is what happened to me, and a lot of the process itself is protected so that you can protect reputations of candidates and stuff like that, and non-disclosure agreements and things like that, so I can't really address the process, I can only address what happened to me and then what I personally saw. The process of the search after April, I intentionally removed myself. The whole two week dialogue and debate, the first week when it was exposed on Tuesday, the vote on Friday, and then the vote on Friday was directed to be canceled, and then the vote was the following Friday — that whole two week process, I intensely rule myself. I didn't want it to be about me, and I would not answer any press or anything like that, because don't put me in the middle of that. If you want me to be your president, then you're going to have to go through this process, and you're gonna have to deal with all views of the candidate and the process, and then you're going to have to come up with an outcome. If that outcome is favorable, then I'll consider it, but don't pull me into the middle of that. That’s what I told the chair when he when he called me and said he’s going to have a meeting. I said OK, but I'm not going to be involved in this process. This is all you. This is not about Caslen right now. This is about the University of South Carolina and the integrity of the process of search, and the board of trustees who have the statute of authority to pick the president.
Editor's note: President-elect Caslen said at his press conference yesterday that he had offers from other institutions and was, in fact, on a campus when he received the phone call that he was being reconsidered as president of USC. Many board members said they were concerned that if they didn't hold a vote on Caslen that he might have accepted a job elsewhere.
TDG: Why was this job at this university so important for you to turn down the other opportunities amid all of the controversy?
BC: Probably the reason I stayed compared to some of the other opportunities was that I wanted to be a part of fixing and healing it, because I was the lightning rod that caused the conflict. ... Whenever you have a conflict, the metaphor I like to use is breaking a bone. If you break a bone and it heals, and it heals correctly, the bone is stronger where the break occurred than when it was before the break occurred. So if you’re a part of the healing and building the student body and the faculty back together again, we will be a stronger student body. We’re going to be a stronger faculty. We’re going to be understanding and have great empathy because we have heard each other — and yes there were harsh feelings — but we now understand each other’s perspectives. ... When you bring everybody back together again, you have an organization that is more diverse in thought than it was beforehand, and when you have an organization that’s diverse in thought, you have a strong organization.
Editor's note: There has been pushback from protesters who claim a doctorate degree should be a requirement for USC presidents. Also, they have questioned if Caslen's qualifications are legitimate for a presidential position. Also, Caslen's son, Robert Caslen III, tweeted jabs at USC, tweeting Starbucks workers who misspell names are alumni and tweeting his excitement to watch the Gamecocks lose football games this fall. However, he apologized for these tweets and deleted them from his profile.
TDG: What would you like to tell the USC community about yourself? What misconceptions do you think the USC community has regarding the presidential search or about you or your family’s view of USC?
BC: First of all, I want to prove to the student body that I'm your strongest advocate. It’s not that I want to be your friend, but by being a stronger advocate, I want to make sure that we have the programs and the resources in place to ensure your success in student life and in your academic goals and objectives and endeavors, and I think that's important that I do that. I want to clear up the fact that although I come from a military background, I’m not going to operate this university from a military perspective, so people have don't have to worry about that. That's the least thing from my mind. ... All my life I've learned how to build teams. It's important to build teams. It’s important to articulate the vision that will drive the entire team towards that vision, and this is an opportunity to build a team that can make the University of South Carolina the pre-eminent higher education institution in America.
TDG: What was your persona with cadets at West Point? How did you connect with them there and how will that be similar or different at USC?
BC: A couple of things I did, and this is what I announced yesterday, any team that beat Navy — I don’t care who it was, you can be the debate team or you can be the cyber team or whatever team — you’re coming over to my house for ice cream, the whole team, and we would host you there, and we'd have a good time. So, we're doing the same thing with Clemson. Any team that beats Clemson, you’re going to come over to our house. One military tradition I want to carry with me is the military coin. I’m not going to have a military coin, I’m going to have a USC coin, USC president’s coin, and I want to pass it on for students of excellence. So when a student performs with excellence in some capacity, I'm going to give them a coin, and that's going to be the president’s coin, so we're going to have those made. I'm looking forward to passing them out for students that do excellence. Once a week, I had what they called “Supe PT” — it’s CrossFit. One hour’s worth of really heavy CrossFit. I did it at 5:30 a.m. I want to do something similar, find out what your timeline is with when first class is and stuff like that. 5:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m., it can be 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., whatever it's going to be. We’ll be able to do that once a week, and any student that does 10 workouts with me will get one of those coins.
Editor's note: Students and faculty protesters expressed concern that politics were involved in Caslen's presidential election and believed McMaster had a vested interest in Caslen.
TDG: There was a lot of pushback from students and faculty with Gov. Henry McMaster's involvement and the recent vote. Do you have a relationship with McMaster?
BC: No, I never met him. I mean I just met him the other day, but that was the first time. I never talked to him. I had no idea. And then during the process through April, I had no idea of whether he was involved in any of the process whatsoever, or even if he read it from afar, I assume he must’ve. So no, I don't know him.
TDG: You were also considered as one of the finalists for national security adviser in 2017. Do you have a relationship with President Trump?
BC: No. Actually, I met him three times. After he was elected president, before he was inducted, he went to the Army-Navy football game and I was superintendent. It was the first time army beat navy in 15 years, so he had a booth, I had to ... go up there and visit and introduce myself and say hello. So that was the first time. Second time, I got the call out of clear blue. It’s an incredible, incredible story. So, it was president's weekend so we were having a big dinner in my house. ... All of a sudden, I got one of these texts, and it was from Steve Bannon. ... I answered it and he goes “the president wants to interview you for national security advisor." I said “you got the wrong guy.” So anyway, I have no idea how he got my name or anything like that, but he had four finalists ... It was a 45-minute interview. Did you ever see "The Apprentice"? That’s exactly what it was. Then the third time is when, the following year, we beat Navy and Air Force, which means you're up for the commander-in-chief trophy. ... So the entire football team, a year ago in April or May, went to the White House for the commander-in-chief trophy, and that's when I met him the third time, that was it. I'm sure he didn't know me by anybody. If I was really in the running after McMaster left, you know, he would’ve pulled me up. It is what it is, but it was a great experience.
Editor's note: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) demanded a report from USC over fears of political influence in the presidential search. SACS awards USC its accreditation and with the appointment of Caslen, SACS said it could've violated the law stating “…the governing board protects the institution from undue influence by external persons or bodies.”
TDG: Last week, SACS demanded a new report from the university. Should students and faculty worry about USC losing its accreditation as a result of the search?
BC: I didn't express concern, I recognized there was concern. From my experience working as a senior counselor to the president of Central Florida, they have had some significant governance issues to the point where the president was removed, the chair of the board was removed, the CFO was removed, and I was brought in to look at the organizational change. ... In that process, I worked with the Association of Governing Board, which is AGB, and they were magnificent. It's really a nonprofit group that mostly higher education universities know them and know of them because they've been around this environment in this enterprise a lot, and they're well respected, very well respected. ... Their work was amazing because they know how governance works, how governance needs to work. They know from a board’s perspective, the staff's perspectives. ... So if there was a problem in the governor’s procedures of the board of trustees, or if there was undue influence, they will recognize that, and not only will they recognize it, they'll be able to recommend the fixes that are necessary to be put in place. I trust them. I had a conversation with the chair of the board, and I mentioned to them my experience with AGB and to bring them on, and he said “yes, do it,” so I got the green light to bring them on. We’re going to bring them on as an external group and let them have at it, and I want them to look not only at the board, I want them to look at us, and that's healthy. When you bring an extra set of eyes that are respected and professional, it's a great thing. By the way, anybody who works there is pretty much a former college president or university person.
Editor's note: During Caslen’s open forum in April, he made a comment that was perceived by some as victim blaming when he related binge drinking to sexual assault. He said one way he planned to combat sexual assault was to remove alcohol from the equation, but has since walked back those comments and apologized for them. Caslen said his intention was never to blame victims of sexual assault and has learned he needs to articulate his comments better in the future.
TDG: You mentioned that you would go down to Five Points and have a beer with students. Do you worry at all that the image of a USC president drinking a beer with students could contribute to the drinking culture in Five Points?
BC: I think the push to shut down bars is to shut them down at a decent hour, and not to keep them open until 4 a.m. I can advocate that as the president. I would not advocate that right now. I'm not going to advocate anything. ... Frankly I want to have a conversation with Mayor Benjamin about it too, because it's not on campus, it's off campus. It's really the mayor’s responsibility for security. We have to provide and help that. I understand the mayor has done some great efforts to secure it. It was a tragic thing that happened to that student last year. I'm really sensitive to moms and dads who trust the leadership of that institution to the care of their son or daughter, and I want to make sure that I meet their expectations in regard to that. I hope the students don't find that threatening, it's the last thing I want to do. If I'm going to provide for their security, I’m going to understand what the environment is and what it's going to take to provide for their security, but the last thing I want to do is shut down Five Points, so don't get that impression.