Seniors at the University of South Carolina had already dealt with one disaster — the pandemic — when they took their socially distanced seats at the school’s commencement ceremony last weekend.
Then came another train wreck.
The university’s president, Robert Caslen, delivered a speech so bungled — with the wrong school name and closing remarks lifted nearly word-for-word from another famous commencement address — that it prompted widespread criticism from social media users to state legislators in South Carolina.
Now, less than a week later, Caslen has resigned.
“I am truly sorry,” said Caslen, a retired Army lieutenant general, in a statement announcing his resignation. “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.”
Criticism of Caslen’s address, which was delivered Friday night, began immediately after he called students “the newest alumni from the University of California” to shocked laughter from the crowd.
After a university official standing near him whispered “South Carolina,” Caslen corrected himself, then joked about owing the crowd pushups.
But it was the plagiarism that ultimately prompted his resignation.
In the closing words of his address, Caslen urged the graduating students to face adversity boldly.
“Know that life is not fair and if you’re like me, you’ll fail often,” Caslen said. “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.”
But those words were copied almost identically from a famous 2014 commencement speech given by Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Caslen did not attribute the words to McRaven, whose speech has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube.
Caslen’s plagiarism was first reported by South Carolina news outlet FITSNews, which was tipped off by a source. Afterward, criticism spread widely across social media, reaching the floor of the South Carolina Statehouse.
“He’s brought a lot of negative attention to the university. That is how he will be judged,” said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, according to The Post and Courier in Charleston. “We are the laughingstock of the nation. Perhaps it’s time to cut our losses.”
The university board initially refused his offer to resign but ultimately accepted it on Wednesday once the news had spread more widely.
Caslen’s two-year stint as university president was marked by criticism since the moment he was hired. Many faculty and students opposed his appointment, saying he lacked qualifications. The faculty senate unanimously approved a no-confidence vote soon after he started.
Since then, the school has faced accusations of mishandling sexual harassment complaints, and its largest donor, businesswoman Darla Moore, cut ties with the school, a falling-out for which Caslen took responsibility.
The university named former President Harris Pastides to serve as its interim leader while the board of trustees searches for a permanent replacement.