Experts who study controversies in public institutions say the University of South Carolina can easily move on from the embarrassment that led to the resignation of its president Robert Caslen last month.
But, they warn, the school should first consider lessons learned from other top schools across the country to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
There has been no dearth of misconduct on the part of higher education leaders over the past two decades, a allegation of plagiarism that cost Gregory Vincent his post as president of Hobart and William Smith colleges in New York, to more high-profile and criminal cases with lasting effects, like the child sex abuse scandal Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University.
Experts say the myriad of examples – big or small – prove that transparency, listening to student and faculty concerns, and holding leaders accountable are crucial steps in regaining public trust and avoiding future ones. black eyes.
“The tendency of presidents to do dishonorable things is pretty much equal to anyone else in society …” said Ronald Smith, professor emeritus at Penn State who wrote a book on the Sandusky scandal. . “They often got to where they are by stepping on people’s hands on the way up the ladder and often they don’t tell the truth or they hide something with a cover-up.”
Last month, Caslen resigned as president of USC after discovering he had plagiarized part of a graduation speech. Some students, professors and lawmakers demanded that he resign. The decorated lieutenant general, who has more than four decades of experience in the US military, also had a viral moment when he mistakenly called the school “University of California” during his speech. The string of blunders added to the mistrust some already felt in his administration, dating back to before he was ever hired.
USC officials, however, appear keen to move forward, quickly appointing interim president Harris Pastides, who previously led the school from 2008 to 2019, and preparing to seek a new leader. establishment.
Experts like Ron Sachs, CEO and founder of Florida-based Sachs Media Group, which specializes in crisis management, said the university made the right choice in accepting Caslen’s resignation, just as other schools have severed ties with its leaders accused of wrongdoing.
“The terrible irony, if the allegations are true, is that the director of a higher education institution, where academic integrity, frankness and honesty count … this is a total violation of these honored principles and sets a horrible example for students and for the university community, ”he said.
University of Central Florida
Swiftly removing perpetrators from leadership positions sends an important message: This misconduct will not be tolerated at any level, Sachs said.
“(Students) need to be encouraged and inspired by a leader, like a college president, and not become cynical or believe that if he can (plagiarize) then they can do it too,” he said. declared.
A prime example of a school severing ties with government officials is at the University of Central Florida where, oddly enough, Caslen was hired in 2019 to help find a new president and a new finance leadership team. The school was still in recovery mode after an investigation found the school had embezzled around $ 85 million for construction projects.
The Orlando Sentinel discovered in 2019 that the school had used the remaining operating funds for new buildings, including $ 38 million for its new Trevor Colbourn Hall University Center. An investigation by the state’s auditor general quickly followed, leading to the resignation of UCF president Dale Whittaker.
Four other employees were made redundant and the chairman of the school’s board of directors and its financial director resigned. Whittaker, who said he did not know the funds were being misused, also lost tens of thousands in bonus pay, the Sentinel reported, before he resigned.
Experts say the school made the right decision, not only admitting the unnecessary expenses, but working to fix them.
The school’s former financial director then took full responsibility for the unnecessary spending, according to Florida Today, and said the school had since made “aggressive” changes and reorganized staff to prevent the problem from occurring. repeat, although no action was taken prior to the incident being investigated by news outlets.
Michigan State and Nassar
Students, faculty and staff must be included in developing a post-scandal plan, experts say, especially the search for a new leader.
Failure to do so is a critical faux pas for recovering universities, they add, citing the state of Michigan as an example.
In 2018, MSU hired interim president John Engler despite opposition from students and faculty who argued he was ill-suited in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. Nassar, an MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor was sentenced to 360 years in prison in 2017 and 2018 for sexually abusing at least 265 women and girls over decades.
Barely three months after taking office, Engler proved he was the wrong candidate that students and faculty feared. He was charged with offering payment to a sexual assault survivor and suggesting in an interview that some survivors appreciated the attention of the Nassar controversy. He resigned six days later.
Listening to students and faculty would likely have resulted in a better presidential choice, experts say.
“In crisis management, there is a principle to know – and that is that the crisis before the crisis has no plan, and the crisis after a crisis manages it badly,” Sachs said, adding that damage to school marks is difficult to measure but pale in comparison to the crimes committed and the lives injured.
In addition to listening to stakeholders, presidential research must be apolitical and professional processes, said Senator Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland. This was not the case when Caslen was hired at USC, according to a review by the university’s accrediting body which determined that Governor Henry McMaster had undue influence over Caslen’s selection, prompting criticism from students and staff.
“The other lesson the university has an interest in learning is that its (USC) process for choosing Caslen was the most overtly political and non-transparent process,” Harpootlian said. “It was doomed to state failure.”
USC and Holderman
Hiring a new permanent president who is scandal-free and dedicated to repairing the school’s image will also be key, experts say.
USC officials can check their own history for proof.
In 1990 then-president Jim Holderman resigned in the school’s biggest scandal for using his office for personal gain, using millions of dollars for lavish hotel stays, travel around the world, gifts to politicians and secret scholarships for their children. It was later accused of sexual assault by four men in an article in the Charlotte Observer, which was investigated and turned out to be true. He also made a strong case for tax evasion for money received through the university foundation and was sentenced to three years in prison for a money laundering scheme stemming from his tenure as president. from school.
He was also stripped of his honorary degree and mandate by the school’s board of directors.
By all accounts, Holderman’s successor John Palms didn’t shy away from solving the problems left by Holderman and spent nearly a decade painstakingly rebuilding the reputation of the university. The Observer reported that he helped raise over $ 500 million over the next five years, a record high at the time, and had the support of wealthy alumni, including his biggest financial donor Darla. Moore, who said in April that she was embarrassed and humiliated by her association. with USC.
In an interview with the Observer in 2002, Palms said the most important job he had was to restore the school’s “moral authority”.
“Southern Carolinians are very sensitive to their reputation,” he told the newspaper. “They did not send their children to a dirty place.”
Harpootlian, who charged Holderman with multiple crimes while working as a county attorney, said hiring Palms was done professionally and turned out to be the best decision the college could have made afterwards. the scandal.
“There has never been any scandal or inappropriate activity on his part, none at all,” he said.
Get ahead of the story
There is likely a silver lining for Caslen when the dust settles, experts agree.
The former West Point superintendent has not been charged with anything illegal. Others have recovered from worse offenses, they add.
Take the case of E. Gordon Gee, the current president of West Virginia University.
Gee has faced requests to resign while at the helm of Ohio State University on several occasions for controversial statements, including jokingly calling Notre Dame students, graduates and faculty “ damn Catholics ”and making fun of the academic quality of other schools. in 2013, according to The Herald Dispatch.
The school board sent a letter to Gee, saying he had embarrassed the university. They also released an action plan, in which Gee apologized to those he had offended.
Gee’s time at OSU finally took its course, as he retired from his post approximately three months later in July 2013.
But he quickly bounced back and was hired in West Virginia in December 2013, where he previously served as president in the 1980s.
While USC could make the Caslen controversy last for untold months by setting up a committee to investigate the plagiarism allegations, this is unlikely since Caslen has already admitted the wrongdoing.
“(Schools) always say, ‘We want to move forward… and put this behind us,” ”Smith said. “In three years this will all be forgotten, I guess. He was not there very long, hardly anyone knows him and the board, who knows him, will want to forget about him and not make any statements about him. Everything is played out pretty much the same … and South Carolina can continue to lead the great destiny of the institution.