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University of SC president resigns amid controversy

Bristow Marchant and Lucas Daprile, The State on

Published in News & Features

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Robert Caslen resigned as president of the University of South Carolina on Wednesday, bringing his short but controversial stint at the helm of the state’s flagship public university to a quick end.

Caslen will be replaced by former USC President Harris Pastides, according to an email from USC spokesman Jeff Stensland.

“Trust is the most important ingredient of effective leadership, and when it is lost, it is nearly impossible to lead. I believe that is the case right now between the University of South Carolina and its president. Therefore, I have submitted my resignation to the Board of Trustees this evening, May 12, and they have accepted it,” Caslen said in the email. “I am sorry to those I have let down. I understand the responsibilities and higher standards of senior level leadership. When those are not met, trust is lost. And when trust is lost, one is unable to lead.”

Caslen’s resignation will be effective Thursday, and the search for a new president will begin “immediately,” according to a news release from USC.

Caslen was in the spotlight for a pair of noticeable gaffes in this weekend’s commencement address. First, Caslen accidentally congratulated the new graduates of the “University of California” before correcting himself, causing audible confusion among the South Carolina graduates and guests in attendance.

It also later emerged that Caslen’s speech quoted portions of another speech by retired Navy admiral William McRaven without attributing the source of the material. Caslen admitted in an interview his use of McRaven’s quote was plagiarism.

After the controversy surfaced, Caslen offered his resignation to the Board of Trustees Chair C. Dorn Smith, who did not accept, The State previously reported. Other board members, however, were not aware of Caslen’s offer to resign and said they should have been in the loop.


Pressure for Caslen to resign mounted this week as some students, alumni and even Board of Trustees members questioned whether Caslen should remain president.

Caslen entered the job under controversial circumstances as well. He was hired in July 2019 on an 11-8 vote by the USC board despite protests from some students and faculty. His hiring followed Pastides’ retirement.

A career Army officer and former superintendent of West Point, Caslen was criticized for his lack of an academic background or doctoral degree. Students also highlighted his involvement in the Iraq War and comments that seemed to blame “binge drinking” for campus sexual assault, as well as the perception that S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster pushed through Caslen’s appointment.

The latter accusation led the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to look into whether there was “undue influence” on the decision.

As USC president, Caslen made efforts to bury the hatchet, meeting with many of his critics from the appointment process. He was often seen working out at the Strom Thurmond campus gym and posing for selfies with students around campus.

Under his leadership, the school froze tuition for the first time in decades, hired its first Black provost and navigated a pandemic that shut down its Columbia campus last year.

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