COLUMBIA, S.C. — An organization that certifies colleges is raising some concerns about the University of South Carolina's hiring process for its new president. Specifically, the group wants to know if there's been external persons or bodies involved in the decision-making process, News19's Deep Dive team has learned.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission is asking the school to document if they're complying with their guidelines. If it isn't, that could jeopardize the school's accreditation .
Last week, Board of Trustees Chairman John von Lehe Jr. called for a meeting of the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees to take up the matter of voting for retired Army Gen. Robert Caslen as the school's new president. This was after trustee Charles Williams claimed South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster pressured trustees to meet on the matter.
The timing of the meeting -- when most of the university's faculty and students are out of town on summer break -- led more than a few to believe that the governor was exercising unprecedented influence in installing Caslen in office. A judge ultimately blocked the meeting after a legal challenge was made by one of the trustees who said the board didn't get at least five days notice of the meeting as required by law.
The trustees are scheduled to vote again on Caslen's nomination this Friday.
In a statement Tuesday, McMaster's spokesman said the governor did contacted board members asking them to vote on a president as soon as possible, but he said he did nothing wrong in the process.
“In his capacity as the ex-officio chairman of the university’s board, the governor has contacted each of his fellow Board members and has encouraged them to select a permanent President for the University of South Carolina as soon as possible," spokesman Bryan Symmes said in a statement. "To suggest that the governor, who by law is a member of the board of trustees, did anything improper is preposterous. Governor McMaster has made no secret about the fact, that as a member of the Board, he believes General Robert Caslen is supremely qualified and is perfectly suited to address the challenges ahead for the University of South Carolina.”
Caslen had not garnered trustee approval in a first vote in April, and 82% of the faculty and student body had negative views about his nomination. Most in opposition believed that Caslen, then superintendent at West Point, lacked the experience and personal skills to run the university.
Last Friday's called meeting, had it occurred, might be found out of compliance with the Comprehensive Standards for accreditation published by the Southeastern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) -- and could affect the university. News19's Deep Dive team had asked SACS about that possibility that the school's accreditation could be affected. In a letter to USC President Harris Pastides, SACS cited WLTX's question, and wrote to Pastides questioning if there were any outside influences, and asked for a response from the school.
According to SACS's Comprehensive Standards section on Institutional Mission, Governance, and Effectiveness, section 3:
3.2.1 The governing board of the institution is responsible for the selection and the periodic evaluation of the chief executive officer
3.2.4 The governing board is free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies and protects the institution from such influence.
3.2.8 The institution has qualified administrative and academic officers with the experience and competence to lead the institution.
The opening paragraph to this section of Comprehensive Standards states:
If an institution is judged to be significantly out of compliance with one or more of the Comprehensive Standards, the Commission’s Board of Trustees may deny reaffirmation and place the institution on a sanction or, in the case of other reviews, place the institution on a sanction.
USC's Board of Trustees could be considered non-compliant of sub-sections 3.2.1 and 3.2.4 if the members are influenced or asked to vote for a particular candidate.
As to sub-section 3.2.8, the job description for the president's position at posted at Parker Executive Search -- the team contracted by the university to find job candidates -- includes this qualification: "The President will have an earned doctorate or terminal degree from an accredited institution and higher education experience."
While Caslen did lead the US Military Academy at West Point from July 2013 to July 2018, he possesses a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering from Kansas State University and an MBA in Finance from Long Island University. Caslen's military background may be an odd fit to the globally recognized research university.
USC's trustees are set to meet again on July 19, where they're expected to vote on Caslen's nomination.
On July 15, Linda Thomas-Glover, vice president of SACS, sent a letter to USC President Harris Pastides citing a voicemail message left by a WLTX reporter asking about compliance.
Thomas-Glover's letter, in part, reads "In light of these circumstances, and in accordance with the Commission's police and procedure I am requesting that the institution prepare a report that explains and documents the extent of compliance with the following standard of Principals of Accreditation:
Standard 4.2.f (External influence)
This standard expects the institution's governing board to protect the institution from undue influence by external persons or bodies."
USC has until August 10 to respond.
When asked for comment about the SACS letter, University spokesman Jeff Stensland wrote "the university has been in contact with SACS and will file a formal response as requested in the letter. It is important to note that the letter reflects SACSCOC’s awareness that the governor, by law, is the ex-officio chairman of the Board of Trustees. Further, the university has confirmed for SACSCOC that the board meeting in question was called by Chairman John von Lehe, Jr., not the Governor."