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Group upset with USC president search holds rally

The group is upset over the process to pick who will replace Dr. Harris Pastides

A group of faculty and students rallied against what they say is "political overreach" in the selection of the next president of the University of South Carolina.

Several hundred members of a group called "Gamecocks4Integrity" spoke outside the Russell House on campus. In addition to the students and faculty, several current and former politicians, including Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and former State Rep. Bakari Sellers were there. 

The group is upset over the process to pick who will replace Dr. Harris Pastides. Currently, the USC Board of Trustees is expected to vote Friday on the nomination of retired Army General Robert Caslen to be the school's president. That vote is set for 10 a.m. that day. 

"That process has been compromised by political interference," says Dr. Bethany Bell, associate professor in the College of Social Work and faculty senator. "The governor's action relating to the search for a new university president imperil the university's national reputation and accreditation, threatening the value of it's degrees."

The board was set to vote last Friday on Caslen's nomination, but that held up after one of the trustees, Charlie Williams, said the board didn't get the legally required five-day notice of the meeting. A circuit court judge agreed, and blocked the meeting. 

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the potential vote was illegal and improper.

"State law is crystal clear that anyone applying for a state job must meet the minimum posted requirements," says Benjamin. "This is not discretionary, this is the law. The university bylaws and the board of trustees bylaws are also crystal clear and the trustees are acting in direct contravention of them."

University trustee Charlie Williams also said last week that Gov. Henry McMaster was pressuring board members to hire Caslen, who was also the former West Point Superintendent.

Williams suggested McMaster tried to hold a hasty vote during summer break and his political pressure could threaten the university's accreditation.    

Spokesman Brian Symmes says McMaster wants a permanent president as soon as possible and Caslen is supremely qualified. He added it's preposterous to suggest the governor did anything improper during the search. 

McMaster is the ex-officio chairman of the board. A document released by his office last week showed that it was Trustees Chairman John von Lehe Jr. who officially notified the trustees of the vote.      

The board considered Caslen in April, then voted to continue the search. Students and professors protested, saying Caslen had no advance degree or research university experience.    

the question over outside influence led to The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission (SACS) to ask the school in a letter if it had allowed "undue" outside influence in the process.  If so, the school could face discipline, including the loss of accreditation, although that severe punishment would seem unlikely. (The letter was prompted by WLTX's Deep Dive team asking if the agency was looking into those claims) 

USC denied the claim, and said Tuesday it was working on a response to SACS letter.  

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