USC's trustees doubted the presidential search firm. Will they hire them again?

2019-09-21 | The State

Sept. 20-- Sep. 20--Even as University of South Carolina trustees prepared to elect Robert Caslen the school's next president this summer, members on all sides of the debate considered ditching the presidential search firm and starting over.

University of South Carolina trustees -- including some who voted for Caslen in July -- asked questions about the search firm hired to find candidates, according to recently released documents. Some thought the firm wasn't capable and did an inadequate job.

Though the presidential search is over, USC will soon conduct at least two nationwide searches for top university positions: chief diversity officer and provost. The board members' concerns about Parker Executive Search raise questions about how USC will fill these positions without running into the same problems.

"The firm was identified through a competitive process and they have a long record with USC of identifying qualified candidates for key academic and executive positions," board chair John Von Lehe said in an email. "In terms of future searches, they could certainly apply for consideration."

But one other board member isn't so sure.

"I would be shocked if they used them again," Trustee Charles Williams said.

The records reviewed by The State -- which were released by the university and Gov. Henry McMaster's office -- show some board members thought about bringing in another search firm after the board decided in April to continue the presidential search.

The board in April had interviewed four finalists, including Caslen, but passed on each of them at that time. But three months later, a sharply divided board chose Caslen in a special meeting. Some have charged that Gov. Henry McMaster forced the board to vote on the former Army general.

Trustee William Hubbard floated the idea of bringing in a new search firm.

"Because we have already named four finalists, we have an opportunity now to increase our chances of bringing in a great candidate, including, perhaps a sitting president," Hubbard wrote his board colleagues in a June 19 email.

"But we don't know what we can get because we don't have a well connected search firm, and we haven't picked back up on our search," Hubbard said.

Caslen, a former superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was a senior advisor charged with cleaning up a financial mess at the University of Central Florida when he was picked to lead USC. The other three finalists held senior positions at universities but were not presidents.

Parker Executive Search President Laurie Wilder said she could not comment on the search or respond to any comments made by the board members, citing a confidentiality agreement the company has with USC.

USC paid Parker Executive Search $137,000 for the search, according to a previous article from The State. The Board of Trustees announced the four finalists in April, sparking protests by students and faculty because none of the candidates were women and only one was a person of color.

"It was recommended that we should consider a new search firm," Hubbard said.

Von Lehe, the board chairman, indicated he was open to hiring a new search firm and continuing to try to find more candidates, saying, "I will reinforce this. Well said," to Hubbard's email.

Von Lehe voted for Caslen, who was elected in an 11-8 vote in July. Hubbard abstained.

Trustee Egerton Burroughs also voted for Caslen in July. But in late April, he was on board with changing search firms.

"We need to clear the air on the search firm," he said in an April 27 email to trustees. "If we need to select another one let's all be together. ... It will be much harder now to attract great candidates for a next president ..."

Trustee Robert Dozier, who voted against Caslen, told his USC board colleagues that he had researched Georgia Tech's presidential search and found that the firm the school used had a pool of 11 sitting presidents.

"Not provost, deans, presidents in waiting, etc. -- 11 sitting presidents," Dozier said on June 23. "We have a unique opportunity to find the best now given our current situation."

Trustee A.C. "Bubba" Fennell III replied: "Do you know who their search firm is?? With that pool of Presidents and their process, sounds like they would be a good resource for USC to consider."

Fennell voted in favor of Caslen. The Georgia Tech presidential search was conducted by Heidrick Struggles of Chicago, according to

Leah Moody, a trustee since 2009, asked for clarifications from the board's legal counsel about the consequence of hiring a new firm, emails show.

Moody said she hadn't made up her mind about whether a different firm should be hired but wanted to see if the contract with Parker would stop the board from taking action.

"Is there any limiting language that stops you from doing that?" Moody said in an interview with The State.

Dozier gave his assessment of their contract with Parker in an email to Moody and others.

"Seems to me that you don't 'fire' the current firm. You augment them with a more capable firm that can target appropriate candidates at this moment," he said.

With USC's search, Parker's pool of candidates was criticized by faculty and students for not including any women and not being diverse enough.

Emails show the board made some effort to find diverse candidates when the initial search began. In January, the board agreed to advertise USC's presidential opening in publications such as Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Women in Higher Education, and Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, according to an email sent from Parker to the board.

"When you talk about diversity and the caliber of clients, you have to look at what your pool has," Moody told The State.

This being her first presidential search as a trustee, she leaned on the expertise of Parker and others with experience for finding the right candidates.

When asked by The State if she could do the presidential search over again with a different search firm than Parker, Moody laughed.

"That's a hard question," she said