UofSC President-elect sets priorities, promises to listen to students, faculty

VIDEO: UofSC President-elect holds news conference

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC/WIS) - The incoming president of the University of South Carolina told reporters he cannot wait to get started in his new role and is already meeting with students and faculty members to listen to their concerns.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, who was selected Friday to serve as the university’s 29th president, spoke Monday morning.

“Leadership, as I've come to learn throughout my career, is not all about taking action. It's about listening, and questioning, and learning and collaborating, so that the actions that we take are well informed, and in the best interest of the entire organization,” he said. “My pledge to all of you is that we will engage, we will listen, we will learn and we will work together to advance the cause of this University and the University System.”

Caslen said one of his first acts to “better understand the opportunities and challenges” he faces was to read through all of the comments from faculty and students from meetings held in April during the interview process.

“If you have any inflated opinion of yourself, just go back and read those comments,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience. But I learned a lot. It was helpful to understand not only about myself, it was also helpful to understand the perspectives of everybody in the student body and the faculty and how important that is.”

“They gave me great advice on the visibility of a president,” he said. “They talked to me about diversity and why diversity is so important. We reflected about my comments from back in April and had a good discussion about that we talked about sustainability. And one point that really that I valued was the discussion that we had on mental health and the mental health efforts of the University of South Carolina and the mental health needs of our students.”

The comments in April that he referred to centered on binge drinking and its connection to campus sexual assaults.

“But let me be clear about my comments and April: I never intended to shift responsibility for sexual assault onto the shoulders of victims,” he said. “There is never any excuse for sexual abuse. These crimes are committed when one human being decides to violate the human dignity of another. And I want to apologize to those who felt I was blaming victims. That was the furthest thing from my intended words. And I’m truly sorry for those who felt otherwise.”

Caslen said his near-term priorities will be focusing on academic excellence, research and diversity.

“I want to make the University of South Carolina a place where top scholars want to come where they want to stay and contribute to see the reputation of our university and his programs continue to rise,” he said.

He also wants to build from the strengths of the university and the state’s economy and go after research dollars and said the school’s Office of Diversity Inclusion will report directly to him.

He also said the three behaviors that guide him are character, excellence and pride.

“Excellence is doing everything to the upper level of your potential, with a self-discipline that drives you there consistently,” he said. “The opposite of excellence is mediocrity. I do not believe in being an average, a great university requires excellence.”

RAW VIDEO: Newly-hired UofSC President Robert Caslen sets goals, promises to listen to students, faculty

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The university’s Board of Trustees voted 11-8 in favor of Caslen, despite concerns and protest from some faculty and students who said the search for a new president was flawed and lacked diversity and that Caslen didn’t have a doctoral degree or research university experience.

Dozens of students and faculty members who sat quietly outside the board room during the meeting began chanting “Shame” when they learned of the results.

Outgoing President Harris Pastides says strained relationships happen in all families and asked students and professors to work together with Caslen to heal and move the university forward.

On Monday, Democratic State Rep. Todd Rutherford said he would file a bill to remove Gov. Henry McMaster from the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina. Currently, the sitting governor of South Carolina serves as the ex officio chair of the board. Critics of Friday’s vote say McMaster forced a vote on Caslen, thereby eliminating other finalists for the job.

"In order to take the politics out of it, we must take the politician out of it,” Rutherford said on Twitter.

The day before the vote, McMaster said it was time for the university to move forward.

“President Pastides has done an excellent job for ten years, but he gave his announcement almost a year ago, today, almost a year ago that he was leaving,” McMaster said. “We have vacancies in the top echelons of the university – the financial officers, the provost. No one is going to come and apply for those jobs until we get a president.”

Caslen spent five years as superintendent at West Point and 43 years in the Army. His presidency is set to begin on Sept. 16.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Copyright 2019 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.