Why president who plagiarized speech regrets post at University of South Carolina

In a recently letter to state newspaper, he backs what he said in emails earlier this year: 'The environment is hostile'
By: | October 4, 2021
Robert L. Caslen is the 29th president of the University of South Carolina.Robert L. Caslen is the 29th president of the University of South Carolina.

Former University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen, who resigned after plagiarizing a part of his commencement speech in May, wrote in a series of emails that he regretted ever coming to the institution, according to reports from the Post & Courier.

Caslen, a retired lieutenant general and the former superintendent at the United States Military Academy at West Point, wrote several scathing comments in more than 3,800 pages of emails uncovered by the newspaper to the Vice President of Student Affairs, calling its environment “hostile and destructive.” He said he stood by those statements in an interview done last week with the Post & Courier.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would never have gone to the University of South Carolina,” Caslen wrote to the newspaper. “If I were a member of the South Carolina community, I would ask myself, ‘Why does a guy like him who’s been in all these different communities throughout his entire life, feel this way about our community?’ ”

Caslen was referring to his stellar military career that included graduation from West Point, being appointed executive officer of the 101st Airborne Division and his tours of duty in the Gulf War, Operation Uphold Democracy, the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. He earned several commendations including the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and Army Distinguished Service medals.

Despite that decorated service, his credentials to become President at the University of South Carolina were questioned, especially by the student body which overwhelmingly did not approve of him being chosen. Though he had been Chief Accountability Officer at the University of Central Florida with an MBA from Long Island University and a Master of Science from Kansas State University, he had no doctorate degree, other than the honorary one he received from LIU.

His comments that tied binge drinking to sexual assaults on campus also rankled students and brought questions from the Board of Trustees. They removed him from consideration, which sparked this reaction from him to university officials: “I am sorry that my record and my reputation had caused such a clamor at your university and were so polarizing to your faculty and student body. If I had known the environment of your campus, I would have withdrawn my nomination right away.”

And yet, because of the influence of Gov. Henry McMaster, who backed Caslen, he reconsidered and was hired as president as students protested outside of the meeting room where the Board approved him in an 11-8 vote.

“I am confident that every student, alumnus, faculty member and citizen of this state will benefit from his superior leadership, vision and direction, which he has demonstrated throughout his remarkable career,” McMaster said.

Caslen at the time said, “I’m honored. I’m very grateful for those who put their trust in me.” But board member Charles William, who strongly opposed his appointment, remarked, “We’re going to destroy this university.”

Not even two years later, one of the most public and harmful addresses given by Caslen had university officials scrambling. In his infamous commencement speech shared widely across social media, Caslen not only plagiarized the work of a fellow military official but also referred to the University of South Carolina as the University of California.

He quoted almost verbatim lines from a 2014 commencement address by former Navy Seal Adm. William McRaven, who helped lead the raid that led on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan.

McRaven’s speech: “Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up—if you do these things, then the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today. And what started here will indeed have changed the world—for the better.”

From Caslen’s speech: “Know that life is not fair and if you’re like me, you’ll fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the cowardly bullies and lift up the downtrodden—and never, never give up—if you do those things, the next generation and the generations to follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today. And what started here, today, will indeed change the world for the better.”

After the news broke that he lifted those passages, Caslen responded and then resigned. “I am truly sorry,” Caslen said in a statement. “I was searching for words about resilience in adversity and when they were transcribed into the speech, I failed to ensure its attribution. I take full responsibility for this oversight.”

Yet, McMaster still stood by him, saying “I think he did a splendid job. I’m sorry to see him go.”

Harris Pastides, the university’s former president from 2008-2019, has assumed the role of interim president to try to stabilize the situation at South Carolina. But it’s been a tumultuous start, as state officials again intervened in August when Pastides and the university tried to implement a mask mandate on campus because of a lack of vaccinations in the state and rising numbers of COVID-19 cases spurred by the delta variant. That requirement was denied by the state attorney general before later being overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Caslen’s response to his term in office in one of the emails obtained by the Post & Courier, “I don’t know how anyone can stand it. At some point, you have to ask why do you put up with this stuff. It is insane.”