With Dr. Harris Pastides preparing to retire as president of University of South Carolina, the presidential search committee has been hard at work looking for a replacement. Months of searching and screening candidates nationwide yielded 11 high-qualified semifinalists, which was then whittled down to four finalists.
Arguably the most impressive of the four finalists was retired Lt. General Robert Caslen, who had recently served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. His treatment by a number of students, faculty and then board of USC demands condemnation not only for the personal injustice to Caslen, but the demeaning of the military. Let me explain.
Caslen's background and experience set him apart as the top candidate to lead USC. The U.S. Military Academy is one of the most selective and top-ranked institutions in America. Caslen not only spent five successful years leading USMA, but upon retirement from the military became a top civilian administrator and senior counsel to the president of Central Florida University.
During his 43 years in uniform, Caslen led at the top strategic levels of command in peace and war before taking over at West Point. While superintendent, Caslen served on national boards and educational bodies like chair of the NCAA commission to combat sexual violence. He was known for his emphasis on the problem of sexual assault in his military commands and at West Point. For many of us in the military, watching the process and knowing the reputation of Caslen, we were excited about the leadership he would provide the university.
Unfortunately, though he was the leading candidate going into the final stretch, Caslen was brought down by what appears to be a radical minority of students and faculty. That, and what appears to be the board caving to the pressure of the radicals.
On April 26, while the USC board was meeting on campus to confer about the presidential search, around 75-100 students gathered to loudly protest Caslen being picked as president. One objection was Caslen's statement about tackling sexual assault given during a student forum. When asked about sexual assault, Caslen, again the former chair of the NCAA commission to combat sexual violence, said: "We went after this ... not only sexual assaults, but we want to take up the contributing measures toward sexual assault, particularly alcohol. We had to spend a lot of time, a lot of energy, toward educating students about the consequences of alcohol, binge drinking, things like that.” He later caveated, “Absolutely, absolutely, I’m not saying (sexual assault) is the victim’s fault, Alcohol does not cause sexual assault.”
Many would wonder why such an obviously true statement could create enough controversy that Caslen be dropped as a presidential contender. The truth of the opposition became more clear during the protests. The real objection was not his statements about sexual assault, but the anti-military bent of the protesters and their contempt for Caslen's military career.
The spokesman for the protest said of Caslen: "His entire career runs counter to the values of the university. ... We are not crusaders.” This came after criticisms of Caslen's service in Afghanistan and Iraq and his service in the Army. The protesters were merciless in their vehemence against Caslen, a military man, becoming president, causing the USC board to end the search and dismiss Caslen from consideration.
Gen. Caslen, who has seen combat throughout the world, was shocked by what happened. During the forum, Caslen had included progressives’ favorite term, "toxic masculinity," as a contributing factor, and mentioned his many actions fighting sexual assault. To no avail.
According to Caslen: "After what I experienced last Friday, who would want to go back to an environment like that?” Caslen said of the protests: “We live in a world where it doesn’t matter what’s true, it matters how much support you can generate.”
According to The State newspaper, Caslen expressed frustration because he said none of the student protesters had contacted him to ask him to clarify his remarks before opposing his candidacy. “No one even came to ask me what the truth was,” Caslen said. He was quickly picked up as president of a top Florida university after the USC dismissal. The reality was that the protesters were anti-military and the board listened and gave in.
Veterans in South Carolina, particularly we veterans with service in Afghanistan and/or Iraq, took the protest and dismissal of Caslen as a slap in the face. The protesters' claim that Caslen's "entire career" was "counter to the values of the university" was spitting in the face of the military in South Carolina.
To make it worse, the USC board's refusal to condemn the remarks but instead dismiss Caslen was a horrible message about the "values of USC.” Having attended USC law school, and knowing other USC grads who have served in uniform (including combat), the leadership of USC has undermined what should be the true values of USC: respect for service, and particularly military service. I would suspect that some members of the board felt the same, but the decision of the body was disappointing.
South Carolina has one of the highest percentages of veterans of any state in the Union, as well as active-duty military members serving throughout the state. The leadership of USC, including the USC board, should now attempt to make amends for what has happened. Not only an apology to Gen. Caslen, but condemnation of the despicable remarks of the protesters about service in uniform and service fighting for the nation.
During the next election of board members of USC, South Carolinians should send the clear message about the values of South Carolina. South Carolina is a conservative, pro-military state, and to allow the demeaning of military service at the state's flagship university cannot stand. Veterans in the state expect better, and the people of South Carolina expect better. Let's make this right.
Bill Connor, an Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book "Articles from War.”
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