Call it a Christmas miracle … the University of South Carolina has avoided sanctions from its accrediting body after a rigged presidential search process resulted in the selection of retired U.S. Army general Robert Caslen as the school’s new leader earlier this summer.
According to the university, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has decided not to sanction it in connection with the contentious and overtly politicized search – which was spearheaded by S.C. governor Henry McMaster and his allies on a badly divided board of trustees.
The news was greeted with shock by … well, everyone.
“If they don’t do any sanctions here, I wonder what it would take for them to issue sanctions,” one Democratic lawmaker told us. “I can’t imagine anything more blatant.”
Nor can we …
Hell, the school has admitted this process was politicized …
“It sounds like there was political influence with the organization that is supposed to investigate political influence,” the lawmaker added.
To be clear: We took no position on the university’s decision to hire Caslen. As supporters of the privatization of higher education (in South Carolina and beyond) we believed it would have been hypocritical of us to weigh in on a partisan spitball fight.
Still … the politicization of this process was unmistakable. In fact, it continues to this day via additional rigged hires (here and here) and the ongoing machinations surrounding Caslen’s hiring of former S.C. House minority leader (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate) James Smith as one of his top advisors.
(Click to view)
Smith (above) has been acting as a “minister without portfolio” in the president’s office – a questionable arrangement that has drawn rebukes from both liberal activists and conservative lawmakers (particularly given the alleged quid pro quo that preceded his selection).
Amazingly, SACS determined that none of this constituted “undue influence.”
The school’s beleaguered board of trustees chairman, John von Lehe, acknowledged in a November 1 letter to SACS president Belle Wheelan that “external factors” in the presidential search “created a perception that it was impacted by undue influence,” and that such a perception is “damaging to the University’s reputation.”
Despite this, von Lehe announced this week that the school would face no consequences as a result of McMaster’s meddling.
“We are pleased (SACS) examination did not find that the imposition of sanctions against the university were warranted,” he said in a statement.
SACS did not issue a written report, von Lehe said. The association will “monitor our progress in strengthening (board of trustee) governance and will conduct a site visit in 2020.”
“Our board is committed to taking the necessary steps to enhance public confidence,” von Lehe said. “The university’s students, alumni, and employees deserve no less.”
While South Carolina has dodged a bullet, Caslen is by no means out of the woods. His recent meddling in the school’s dumpster fire of an athletics department only fanned the flames of that four-alarm conflagration – and so far the only thing more questionable than his hiring moves are the proposals he is seeking to implement.
Also, South Carolina students, faculty, staff and many of the school’s top donors remain aligned against him – and his elevation of Smith to such a key role in his administration has infuriated many Republicans in the S.C. General Assembly (lawmakers who would have ordinarily been in his corner).
With Caslen clinging to a one-year contract and the board that appointed him in perpetual turmoil, it is safe to say the ground beneath him is far from stable.
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