COLUMBIA, S.C. — A state judge has temporarily blocked a planned vote by the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees to pick a new school president, just a day before the vote was to have taken place.
Judge Robert Hood issued a temporary restraining order late Thursday afternoon, saying the meeting violated state law by not giving the board members enough notice. The order is in effect for 10 days, and a hearing on the injunction is set for July 19.
The board was set to consider the candidacy of retired Army general Robert Caslen, the former superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, during a special meeting Friday at 10 a.m. That meeting has now been cancelled, no rescheduled date has been given, according to the University.
But one of the trustees, Charles Williams, filed the legal challenge along with attorney Joe McCulloch.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster had asked the trustees to come back and hold this special vote, according to Williams.
The vote had not been known about publicly, but on Tuesday, Williams went public with his concerns about the meeting, telling reporters he didn't think it should happen. In an interview with WLTX, Williams said he didn't like the governor getting this involved in the school's process. "The governor has no business trying to run the university," he said.
In a phone call with WLTX on Thursday morning, Williams repeated his concerns.
"Well I mean, we voted on a process and the Governor steps in and demands we have a meeting to vote on Caslen. It's just not right, I mean the Governor shouldn't be involved in this. If there was a crisis at the University, maybe the Governor ought to get involved. But, everything at the University's fine, just to create a crisis? I just think is wrong," Williams said.
The initial letter from trustees' board chairman John von Lehe Jr. to the other trustees announcing the meeting had asked them to keep the the gathering confidential, according to court documents.
"The sole agenda item is the election of a new president. Please maintain confidentiality regarding this meeting. A public notice will be distributed later in the week," the alleged email says, titled 'Exhibit A' in court documents submitted by Williams and McCulloch.
McMaster is the ex-officio chairman of the board because of his position in state government. Around the same time news of the ruling broke, McMaster's staff sent WLTX a copy of a letter McMaster sent to the board asking them to hold off the vote, and affirming that he said he did not actually call the meeting.
"Although I did not call tomorrow's meeting, in my capacity as ex officio chairman of the Board of Trustees, I respectfully recommend that you consider rescheduling the meeting for the near term both for the convenience of those involved and to eliminate any unnecessary distractions or concerns regarding the timing of the special meeting," he wrote to trustee John von Lehe Jr.
Earlier this year, Caslen was one of four announced finalists for the UofSC job, and was considered the frontrunner. Caslen currently serves in the administration at the University of Central Florida, and was a candidate to become National Security Adviser in the early days of President Trump's administration.
But in late April, the trustees voted to reopen the search, after facing backlash from students and faculty over Caslen's nomination. Students had protested outside of a meeting before the board's vote, saying they had concerns about Caslen. That centered mostly around a comment that binge drinking was a big factor in campus sexual assaults.
After the board made their decision, Caslen initially said he no longer wanted the job, but later indicated he may still have had interest.
Since the meeting became public, it has ignited a controversy among the state's political leaders that breaks mostly along party lines, with Democrats opposing Caslen and the governor's decision, and Republicans supporting it.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, before the meeting was cancelled, state Democrats, USC students and faculty gathered just feet from McMaster's State House office to voice concern about the situation.
"The board of trustees meeting scheduled for tomorrow is not only inappropriate, but unlawful. South Carolina state law clearly states in code section 59-117-50, that there must be a notice of time and place of a board meeting delivered to board members no less than 5 days before the scheduled meeting. This did not occur. I encourage the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees to cancel this meeting tomorrow, to cancel any vote tomorrow, and to restart a transparent search beginning with listening to students, faculty, staff and community members along the way," said Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Hours later, a Judge would rule the meeting violated that state requirement.
During the press conference, state senator Darrell Jackson, a Democrat, said if the meeting took place, he would use his role on Senate oversight to hold hearings with trustees.
Jackson also urged trustees not to hold the meeting and even if they did, called on Caslen to decline the position due to the nature of the controversy and questions about the meeting's legitimacy.
Jackson and Benjamin were joined by some USC students and staff that also voiced their opposition to the planned vote.
"As proud students of this University, we are concerned that these basic rights that formed the foundation of our education are being infringed upon. Governor McMaster's interference into the democratic processes of selecting our next University president to try to force a decision from the board of trustees is disheartening and immoral. After the vote in April, we were told that an interim president would be put in place and a completely new search would occur. To go back on that decision is not right and a complete breach of trust between students and the board. The timing of the governor's interference is honestly most appalling. It is the summer time and most students aren't even on campus to voice their opinions," added Lyric Swinton, a USC student.
The school is seeking to replace Dr. Harris Pastides, who announced his plans to retire last year, as university president. Pastides has held his position for 10 years.