COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Retired Army general Bob Caslen said Monday he has learned he needs to listen more and communicate his ideas better as he moves into the civilian world to lead the University of South Carolina.
A divided Board of Trustees selected Caslen on Friday after a divisive search . A number of students and professors did not want him because he lacked a doctoral degree and research university experience and made comments during an April campus visit that seemed dismissive about sexual assault and diversity.
They were also leery because his ties to President Donald Trump as a finalist for national security adviser in 2017.
After getting the new job, Caslen went back this weekend and read the 600 pages of comments about him — most of them critical.
“It’s a humbling experience. But I learned a lot,” Caslen said. “It was helpful to understand, not only about myself. It was helpful to understand the perspectives of everyone in the student body and the faculty.”
Caslen said suggestions he didn’t care about diversity or sexual assaults hit him the hardest because those issues were some of the most important to him during his five years as superintendent at West Point and 43 years in the Army.
Caslen apologized several times during a 50-minute speech and news conference Monday as he visited Columbia and started to try to fix the cracks that formed during the search for the replacement for President Harris Pastides, a beloved leader who grew the university but also was as comfortable asking donors for millions as he was walking around campus taking selfies with students.
“I have to articulate properly and I have to be clear I am articulating with my intended purpose so that I’m not providing words that are unclear or can be turned or interpreted in a different way.”
Several of the school’s top donors asked trustees not to vote Friday and reopen the search, honoring the decision the board made at an April meeting after the issues about Caslen first popped up.
Caslen said they were welcome do to that, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to reapply. Caslen said he was at another school interviewing for a job when university officials called and said they would try to get him a vote as soon as he could.
Trustees voted 11-8 for Caslen on Friday. The past three presidents have been chosen unanimously.
Pastides asked those critical of Caslen to give him a chance and work with him to make the university better.
“There is no doubt the last few months have been difficult and have strained relations within our Carolina family. From time to time, that happens in every family, and I know we will show the world the strength of the ties that bind us together,” Pastides said in a statement .
Caslen’s first stop Monday was to meet with students. He said he asked them what events he needed to go to after he starts Aug. 1. Hip Hop Wednesday is now on his calendar, along with a social trip to the Five Points bar district near campus.
“I want to see Five Points from their perspective. And I’ll drink a beer with them,” Caslen said.
Caslen also plans a bit of an identity switch.
“While I take great pride in a my career and service to the United States Army and am honored to be referred to as general, I’m ready to move forward. Please, forget the general stuff and call me Bob,” Caslen said.
Caslen’s most ambitious goal is to get the University of South Carolina into the top tier of research universities. He promised to at least make sure when people mention the most preeminent public colleges in America, they mention his school.
He also understands deep-seeded rivalries. Caslen mentioned Army broke a 14-game losing streak in football to Navy in 2016 when he was West Point superintendent. The University of South Carolina currently has a five-game football losing streak to the state’s other main college, Clemson University.
“Whatever team that beats Clemson, whether it is the debate team, whether it is a club team or whether it is the football team, they are invited to my house for ice cream sundaes,” Caslen said. “We’re going to start learning how to beat Clemson.”