There’s no sugar-coating it: President Caslen has been out of touch with students, faculty and donors — and he has missed several opportunities to establish a connection.
The disconnect was inevitable when Gov. Henry McMaster leveraged his position to force a surprise summer vote on the candidacy of Lieutenant General Bob Caslen. Despite receiving near-universal negative feedback from faculty and students, getting opposition letters from several major donors — including Darla Moore — and facing a major protest at the vote, the board of trustees plowed straight ahead and installed Caslen as USC’s next president. This grotesque display of politicking and the outright dismissal of public consensus left much of the Carolina community resentful of the new president — even though he had little to do with the process.
So far, Caslen has been unable to fully overcome this resentment and ingratiate himself to the community. This was especially apparent during the Hurricane Dorian debacle two weeks ago. Given that Dorian was projected to hit the coast immediately after Labor Day weekend, and while the government regulates school closure, students still urged the university to cancel classes for those whose return to campus from out of town had been complicated by the storm. When the university announced its intention to remain open on Twitter, it quickly sparked comparisons between Caslen and Pastides. “Pastides would had canceled classes,” one student commented on USC’s weather alert. “[Retweet] if you miss harris pastides,” said another. One student even went so far as to say, “time to impeach Bob Caslen.” President Caslen, perhaps unaware of the online uproar, made no attempt to diffuse the situation or respond to concerned students, instead, callously retweeting USC’s weather announcement with the comment “Stay safe, Gamecocks.” to the chagrin of dozens more students.
This social media misstep is emblematic of Caslen’s tendency to have muted responses to public outcry. Even at the height of his hiring controversy directly after the board vote, Caslen's online statements only made fleeting references to the massive community resistance opposing his presidency — although one of them did include a mildly tone-deaf promise to “serve as a tireless advocate for our students.”
Unlike Pastides, Caslen has struggled to open a dialogue and assuage the fears of the community. Though, to his credit, he has made an effort to quietly reach out to his critics. In fact, after the hiring controversy, Pastides himself stepped in to salvage the situation. “I know Bob Caslen well,” Pastides wrote on the UofSC Facebook Page. “I look forward to welcoming Bob and his wife, Shelly, to the Carolina community.” While Caslen remained silent, Pastides chose to address the elephant in the room, “There is no doubt that the last few months have been difficult and have strained relationships within our Carolina family. From time to time that happens in every family, and I know we will show the world the strength of the ties that bind us together.”
As this heartfelt message proves, Pastides knew how to engage the Carolina community. He was a beloved President because he listened to people and responded to their concerns. If Caslen wants to leave a similar legacy at this school, he needs to do the same. From what I know of Caslen, he appears to be a man of integrity. I have no doubt that he has every intention of building relationships and repairing broken trust, but he should reconsider his approach. While meeting with individual critics is a good start, he needs to satisfactorily address the rest of the community (and maybe respond to a few tweets), too.
If his op-ed on mental health after the tragedy last week was any indicator, he's on the right track. Let's hope he stays the course.