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How not to give a commencement address

It’s well-known by now that Bob Caslen, the suddenly former president of the University of South Carolina, resigned last week following a commencement address that he, well, flubbed pretty badly.

He welcomed the graduates as the new alumni of the “University of California.” Ouch.

More important, he plagiarized.

When someone within stage-whispering distance reminded Caslen where he was, he quickly corrected himself, saying “Carolina,” but not “South Carolina.”

Then, with an embarrassed chuckle, he said to the audience of graduates, “I owe you push-ups.”

Caslen, you see, is a push-up kind of guy, a career military man who regularly invited students to join him at the gym, where he put himself — and those who showed up — through a grueling workout.

His plagiarism consisted of two paragraphs he borrowed without attribution from another commencement address by, of all people, retired Adm. William H. McRaven, possibly the best-known military man in the United States, who planned the takedown of Osama bin Laden. Caslen was deeply apologetic, saying he added the words at the last minute and “failed to cite” him.

It’s not the worst crime in the world — but it is certainly less than ideal if you happen to be the president of a university where academic rules apply. Among those rules: Do not crib from another’s work without credit.

Caslen’s resignation, after almost two years as president, was an unfortunate end to a job he probably never should have been offered — or accepted.

A retired U.S. Army general and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Caslen’s candidacy was met with protests by students who objected to his suggestion, in a stream-of-consciousness talk, that sexual assault and binge drinking go hand-in-hand. Caslen failed to put a period at the end of one sentence before beginning another, making it sound like he was blaming victims.

Caslen wasn’t a first choice for the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees, either. He was approved after a nudge from Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is also a board member. That bit of pressure earned the school an inquiry from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

For a state such as South Carolina, rich in military installations, it might have seemed to some that a military bigwig is just what we needed to run our biggest university. If so, that was obviously flawed thinking.

Almost from the start, people didn’t like the cut of his jib, his lack of social graces, or his inability to speak in ways that made people feel good and want to write checks. He didn’t have a PhD or a research background, weaknesses that may explain his lack of attention to attribution and certainly earned him the suspicion of some faculty members.

He had friends in high places — he was once a contender for a top job in Donald Trump’s White House. And Caslen’s military training — including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — proved invaluable during the pandemic. He tightened the school’s cyber defenses and ran a tight ship during the shutdown that kept many students in classes and infections on the low side.

If he hadn’t stepped on his tongue so many times, or if he’d mastered the manners required to run an institution of more than 30,000 students, he would still be at his post. Caslen’s skills were tailor-made to manage a deadly health crisis that scared everybody else to death. Even his critics give him that much.

Caslen’s fast rise and fall suggest a mini-commencement address of its own:

We are right to push ourselves to try new things. We are also sometimes slow to recognize our own limitations. Managing this tug of war with ourselves is a lifetime challenge. I like to tell young people to “try big.” Because it is better to try big and fail big than not to try at all.

More important than that, though, we are all more than our worst mistake. The now-departed Caslen spent more than 40 years in uniform and fought in three wars. That is accomplishment enough.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

©2021, The Washington Post

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