USC President resigns after plagiarizing Navy SEAL admiral’s famous graduation speech

Robert Caslen (left) has resigned after he plagiarized a 2014 graduation speech from Admiral William McRaven (right), a Navy SEAL who was in charge of the mission to take out terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Bristow Marchant and Lucas Daprile

The State (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 in the interim 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.

After Caslen’s resignation was announced USC Trustee Miles Loadholt told The State it was “the appropriate decision.”

Unlike Caslen’s first offer to resign, Loadholt said he and other board members were aware of Caslen’s offer to resign and spoke to Board of Trustees Chair C. Dorn Smith before Smith accepted Caslen’s resignation.

Eddie Floyd, USC’s longest-serving board member, told The State Wednesday evening that Caslen’s resignation was “his decision.”

“Bob Caslen has done a good job for us in some respects. He did a good job with the pandemic. He has us in some cybersecurity, (but) he has made some mistakes,” Floyd told The State.

Smith sought Floyd’s opinion before deciding whether to accept Caslen’s resignation, Floyd said.

“We talk (just) about every day about the university, about business dealings and things like that,” Floyd said of Smith. Both Floyd and Smith are doctors and they work in the same hospital, Floyd said.

“This is the obvious outcome to what happened, but people need to give President Caslen some respect for the things he did for the university,” Floyd said.

Under Caslen’s leadership, the school froze tuition for two years in a row — something the university hadn’t done since the mid-80s — hired its first Black provost, partnered with the military on cybersecurity programs, held in-person classes during the pandemic while keeping on-campus cases relatively low, implemented a cutting-edge saliva-based coronavirus testing system that greatly expanded testing capacity and sped up test results, The State previously reported.

Despite projections USC would lose 10% of its enrollment amid the coronavirus pandemic, under Caslen’s watch USC actually increased enrollment slightly and increased diversity in the freshman class compared to 2019.

However, Caslen’s public speaking mistakes often dominated the narrative of his presidency.

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 to WIS his use of McRaven’s quote was plagiarism.

After the controversy surfaced, Caslen offered his resignation to 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.

While some called for Caslen’s resignation, others — such as women’s basketball Coach Dawn Staley, USC Student Body President Alex Harrell, outgoing USC Provost William Tate, S.C. State Sen. Ronnie Cromer and more — publicly supported Caslen.

Caslen entered the job under controversial circumstances as well. He was hired in July 2019 on a 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.

This is a breaking story. It will be updated.

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