Nearly a week ago, students graduating at the University of South Carolina heard their president, Robert Caslen, a retired Army lieutenant general, give a commencement speech about how they had prevailed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, General Caslen’s words at the ceremony on May 7, meant to inspire, have drawn accusations of plagiarism and confusion over his mistakenly naming the wrong university. On Wednesday, General Caslen resigned.
“I am sorry to those I have let down,” General Caslen wrote in an email to students, the faculty and the staff announcing his resignation, effective on Thursday. “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.”
In an apology emailed to the university community on Monday, General Caslen admitted to using a well-known quotation in his address to the graduates of the University of South Carolina from a 2014 commencement speech made by retired Adm. William H. McRaven at the University of Texas at Austin.
Admiral McRaven oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He was also the chancellor of the University of Texas System and is the author of “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … and Maybe the World,” which was No. 1 on the New York Times best-selling list on advice and how-tos for two weeks. He wrote the book after his 2014 commencement speech became popular.
General Caslen gave Admiral McRaven’s parting words to the graduates on Friday evening without a citation.
“A few last words to the graduates,” General Caslen said. “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 he asked the graduates to move their tassels from the right side of their caps to the left, General Caslen mistakenly proclaimed, “It’s now my honor and privilege to officially congratulate you as the newest alumni from the University of California.”
Attempts to reach General Caslen by phone and email on Thursday evening, were unsuccessful.
In an email sent on Monday, General Caslen apologized to Admiral McRaven, “someone I know and respect.”
“I was searching for words about resilience in adversity and when they were transcribed into the speech, I failed to ensure its attribution,” General Caslen wrote. “I take full responsibility for this oversight.”
In a statement sent to The New York Times on Thursday evening, Admiral McRaven said that General Caslen was “one of the finest and most honorable officers I have ever served with,” and said he felt an apology from General Caslen wasn’t needed.
“I was flattered that he thought my words were of some value to the graduating students,” Admiral McRaven said in a statement.
“Honorable men and women make mistakes,” he added. “It doesn’t make them less honorable. It just makes them human. I was terribly sorry to hear that he resigned. It is a loss for U.S.C.”
Dr. Charlie Dorn Smith III, the chairman of the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees, had discussed the fallout from General Caslen’s speech and “potential contingencies” with individual trustees, according to a statement from the university on Thursday. The board did not hold a meeting or vote on General Caslen’s resignation or the appointment of an interim president.
“President Caslen informed Chairman Smith of his decision to resign,” the statement from the university said. “No vote was necessary to accept Caslen’s decision, and it is the president’s right to end his employment with the university.”
General Caslen, 67, was the University of South Carolina’s 29th president and the former superintendent and president of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, according to his archived university biography.
The board of trustees voted to make General Caslen the president in 2019, but some had concerns. The university’s faculty senate unanimously voted “no confidence” in General Caslen’s candidacy and said he did not meet the requirements of the former board chairman John C. von Lehe Jr.
“This was not an indictment of his character or his distinguished service,” Marco Valtorta, the former chair of the faculty senate, said at a meeting about General Caslen’s candidacy in July 2019. “It was a reflection, above all, that rich though his military experience has been, it does not meet the high requirements set by Chairman von Lehe in his charge.”
Last month, General Caslen faced more controversy when he took “full responsibility” for not acknowledging the death of the mother of Darla Moore, the university’s biggest donor, quickly enough, according to The Post and Courier of Columbia, S.C.
General Caslen was replaced Thursday by Harris Pastides, who will serve as interim president once approved by the board and until the university is done conducting a national search for its next president. He served as the 28th university president from 2008 until his retirement in 2019, when General Caslen took over.