For South Carolina: A Path to Excellence

State of the University with Bob Caslen podcast – Episode 1

In the inaugural episode of "State of the University with Bob Caslen," the university president and host Sally McKay discuss the university's new strategic plan and have a conversation with student-athlete Jay Urich.


Sally McKay:  It's been a little more than a year since Bob Caslen came on board as the 29th president of the University of South Carolina, and what a year it's been — a record setting freshman class arrived on campus last fall, and an unprecedented global pandemic struck the country and the world in the spring.

Through it all, President Caslen has kept his eye on the future of the university while navigating his first year. I'm Sally McKay, your host for State of the University with Bob Caslen, where every month we'll give you an exclusive look at the University of South Carolina from the perspective of the president.

As a 1992 graduate of this institution and now its executive communications director, I'm looking forward to conversations with Bob about his plans for making this the preeminent flagship university in the country. Now two months into his second year at South Carolina, President Caslen continues to lead through the pandemic.  Despite the challenges of COVID-19, our fall 2020 freshman class was one of the largest ever, with an increase in minority student enrollment and in-state students. So let's get started. President Caslen, welcome to the inaugural episode of State of the University.

Bob Caslen: Thank you, Sally. It's great to be with you. Thank you very much.

Sally: Glad you're here, sir. When you when you arrived last August, you prioritized building bridges to alumni, faculty, staff and students. You also began a strategic planning process for the university. And then you found yourself leading a crisis management process in the face of a global pandemic. We're going to talk about all of these. But first, tell us some about building bridges.

Bob: Well, thanks. I will. You know, no one is not aware of some of the challenges that I came on board with and some of the controversy that, that brought me here. And I realize that this is not about me. This is about the university. And if you're going to make this university live to its potential, you really have to get out there and win, win the hearts and minds of every single constituent that's out there, starting with our students, then with our faculty, then with our staff, all of our internal constituents, and then all the external constituents, because with the community and the great people that we have who do absolutely just love this university, our alumni, and then, of course, we're just one block away from the state house. So the entire General Assembly and all the legislators that are out there, that really — a huge number of them are our Gamecock fans, are Gamecock graduates, and they love this university and support and so we reach out to them too.

Despite all of the different controversies that brought me here, I realized I had to earn trust. And if I was going to earn trust, I had to really begin to communicate. And it was that communication was going to help to build the bridges, knock down the walls and and to build relationships. And and, you know,it's tough. It's, I still have a ways to go. But this is important. This is important for me to earn the trust and confidence of those constituents.

Sally: I remember you said from the very beginning, even before you arrived, that how much you care about students. And I remember also that on your very first day, the very first thing you did was you met with a group of students even before your, your formal press conference and meeting other constituencies, you met first with students. And that really said something.

Bob: Yeah, I wanted to — well, first of all, I want to send the message that we are student centric. So the students are — if there's an internal constituent that I really have to earn their trust in — is the student body. And I wanted to meet with students and frankly, I wanted to meet some of the students that were pretty vocal about that opposed me from coming on board because I wanted to listen to them. I wanted to know what their concerns were. I wanted to be able to find out what it was going to take to address those concerns. And because, I'm not going into this based on how I think it ought to be. I want to I want their input. I want their vision. I want their understanding. And I want to know where their concerns are so that we can they can be properly addressed. So the students were the first and I wanted to make that statement and glad I did because the students are absolutely incredible here at this university.

Sally: So for any new president, getting to know all these important groups of people, I mean, it's very important. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I can imagine that all of these campus relationships really took on a new level of importance for you.

Bob: Yeah, well, COVID-19 was — it took everybody by surprise. But in the midst of a crisis, there's a number of things that must take place. First and foremost, you must have strong and directive leadership. Second, trust is the first thing that will collapse within a, within a crisis, so you have to build trust and you have to maintain trust and the best way to maintain and build trust is through communication.

So the whole efforts I had to build constituents or build relationships with constituents through communication, it was, that was great because that kind of, kind of greased the skids that I had to really reemphasize, the effort that was necessary to maintain communication with all constituents. And an important constituent outside the students was their parents. Because if mom and dad had any concern about sending their son and daughter back to this university, we had to make sure that we had their trust and confidence, that we had the ability to do that.

So the pandemic, it changed a lot of things. But one thing that it, that it is important to understand what changed is that within any crisis, there's going to be opportunities that are out there. And what normally happens in the middle of a crisis is that you're so focused on the crisis, the fire that's burning at your feet, that you fail to look at the strategic horizon where those opportunities are. Because if you don't recognize them and have the agility to be able to meet them, somebody else will, and you're going to lose. So there are some incredible opportunities, I think, that are necessary in the midst of this crisis that we need to take advantage of.

Sally: You talked just a moment ago about the danger of focusing only on the fire at your feet and certainly COVID-19 has been the fire at our feet and still is. But  you also have stayed focused on the horizon. And that horizon for us has been a very thorough strategic planning process. Recently in the state of the university address, you presented a bold vision for our university and a strategic plan that's called For South Carolina, A Path to Excellence.

Bob: Yeah, well, I wanted to, I felt the university needed a strategic plan that was not a piece of paper that only board members and university leadership looked at. We need a strategic plan that everybody believed in from the bottom up, that every constituent believed in and participated in its development. If you, if you had that degree of collaboration and transparency it builds not only trust, but it builds buy-in to where the goals and objectives are going to go. So that's what we did.

So way back in October, the first time we did the off site, we took I mean, I didn't know where to where to start and where to stop, but we took all the deans, all of the direct reports from the staff and all of us collectively were in the same room for two days. I was told it was first time that group ever got together to talk about the future of the university ever. But it was so good because for me as a new person, it was a great opportunity to listen. It was a great opportunity to build a team at the same time and then to really understand and have the really hard talks about where this university needs to go in the next two to five years. So out of that [out of that meeting, we had a draft vision and a draft mission statement and a draft strategic priorities, which we then collaborated with everybody.

And I give the faculty and staff a lot of credit because they organized themselves so that they can have committees that would address each one of the eight priorities. And the vision mission statement and the vision statement is most the most important piece of this, because the vision statement is the is the ideal that everybody signs up for that allows everybody to pull in the same direction. So we're not pulling opposite . We're not against each other. We're all pulling the rope together. And that's what the vision does. So the vision is to be a preeminent flagship university in America. So people look at South Carolina, they look at other flagships like, you know, the Michigan States, the Penn States, the Ohio States out there and they go, you know, where are you with respect to research and a faculty compared to what they have and even some of the students that they do. And frankly, we are pretty competitive. I mean, we're a Carnegie 1 Research institution, we need to get better. We have some of the some of the best faculty in the world. We are number one in international business. We're number one in supply chain management.

Bob: And so we do have those qualities and we are — we should celebrate the fact that we are high in the national rankings in those particular areas. But you know, when I look at a flagship university, the flagship university must in some capacity serve and represent the citizens of the state of which is the flagship of. And we are the flagship university of the state of South Carolina, and that, all of a sudden now, when you start looking at providing service to the people of South Carolina as a flagship university, that kind of opens up not a totally different perspective, but a significantly different perspective, because first and foremost if my client in higher education are the citizens of South Carolina then first and foremost, I have to have a relationship with them and I have to have a relationship with them built on trust.

And the best way I'm going to start building a relationship on trust is that I start looking like them, which really then opens a whole host of diversity issues on where we are with respect to representation and where we are with respect to our state's representation and not only in our student body, but it raises issues in our faculty. And lo and behold, we do have significant issues in that respect and we need to begin to address those. And then it looks at the job market, the economy, the potential economy, and how do we prepare our students so that they can be competitive into that job market, into that economy once they leave here.

Bob:Do we have the right academic programs? Do we have the right colleges and school systems that can be able to deliver that type of education that will transition them and make them successful — in South Carolina? Not North Carolina, not in New Jersey. And as you know, we're the flagship university of the state of South Carolina. So what's going to make us different and preeminent is our service to our state and our service to our state in terms of representation, economic equity, economic development, academic development for economic purposes.

Sally: President Caslen, eight priorities define this path to preeminence. What are the priorities?

Bob:Well, the priorities first, Sally, are driven by a mission. And the mission is to transform lives in an incredible environment through empowering education, innovative research, creative engagement, impactful economic development and selfless service with an inclusive and diverse environment. So given that environment, these are the priorities that we're going to focus on.

So if we live a life of excellence in the classroom, in the intramural field, on the NCAA field, if we live a life of excellence, we'll be performing, every single one of us on that team, to the upper level of our potential. And when we do that, excellence will produce success and we want to be part of that success. That's what Gamecocks are all about.  So, we're going to build teams that win with excellence and character.

Sally: That eighth priority about winning with character and developing a culture of winning is a perfect segueway to our special guest joining the conversation today, Gamecock football team member Jay Urich, six-five redshirt junior who has played several positions, including quarterback and wide receiver. You come to us from the upstate of South Carolina. So glad that you're here. Welcome to the podcast, Jay.

Jay: Thank you so much, Miss Sally and President Caslen for having me. I'm really excited to talk.

Bob:Well, Jay, it's really great to have your thanks. We hear so much about you. You know, you're kind of one of those big images that we all admire out there. And to have you with us this this afternoon was great. Thank you very much for being here.

Jay: Means a lot.

Sally: So, Jay, tell us a little bit about what it's like for you being  a student athlete at South Carolina,

Jay: Being a student athlete here at the University of South Carolina is really a dream come true. Ever since I was  really little, I always dreamed of playing college football and now I had the opportunity with Coach Muschamp, welcomed me here close to four years ago to really live that dream. And it's been something that I've been super grateful for. And the experience has been amazing since I've been here. You know, the people that I've met and the connections I've made are really setting me up to be successful after college.

Sally: Wonderful. We're certainly glad that you are here. Jay, you made just a little bit of national news lately with Matter is the Minimum, and I know everyone knows what that is. And also with something called Original Design. How about start by telling us about the whole  Matter is the Minimum experience and how maybe you did or didn't think it was going to go national and viral?

Jay: Yes, ma'am. So, yeah, Matter is the Minimum came from a group of me, a group of people, me and my friends, the night before the our football team sort of went on a sort of a peaceful protest. And we were just thinking about, you know, what, what slogan could we say to really build up our team? And the night before, I was praying, and I just wanted my teammates to know that I love them. And that was my goal. I didn't know that it would go viral. I didn't know, you know, everything how it went. But my goal was for my teammates, my black teammates, to know that I loved them. And it turned out that not only did they know that I loved them, but a lot of other black people from across the country, you know, knew that I loved them. And it was sort of that night that we created the sign and then from there it sort of exploded and sort of got some headline. And I'm just thankful that, that everybody is circling around something that needs to be addressed with social equality in America.

Sally: It's really inspiring. Jay, I know when I first saw the photo of you with that sign, it was just 'wow!' It was, it was so inspiring and it seems so obvious. And yet none of us had thought of it until you put it down on paper like that. So I know there's so many people so appreciative of you. So talk about Matter is the Minimum and its connection to Original Design, which is a nonprofit that you're creating in all your spare time.

Jay: Yes, ma'am. So during the whole coronavirus, we sort of had a break during spring spring ball, and that's where when everything heated up. So we had a lot of time away from football. So I was still doing my classes during the spring, you know, and doing my meetings online with our coaches. But I had a lot of spare time from about 11 a.m. until I went to bed at [00:04:10] 10. And I just wanted to make a difference. I wanted to use that time and not let time go to waste, because I found out in the season that the time is my biggest, you know, my biggest —

Sally: Kind of an asset. It's probably the most valuable commodity we all have.

Jay: Yeah, so valuable to me. So during that time, I just really started dreaming about what I want to do. And from that moment, you know, we, with my degree with public health, I found out that there's so many different things that need to be addressed. And I've always had a passion for children and helping them. And I got got up with Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw, two people that I admire, and we started dreaming about what I could do to really make a difference. And that's where Original Design came from. And our mission statement is to provide resources and opportunities necessary for children to live healthy and honorable lives. So that's the angle, that's what we're striving for, every decision we make as an organization is going to be based upon that statement. So we're going to do that through a couple of ways. We're going to do that through public health, which is my major. We're going to do that through faith and then through sports. So, specifically with public health we'll focus on diet, exercise and mental health, and then faith will really, really dive into character, and character and and how people are raised and how the qualities that they really need to be, you know, deeply rooted inside of them to where they can, you know, live an honorable life. And then with football and sports we'll trickle that in there. But it's not going to be the most important side of things.

Sally: So President Caslen, this definitely sounds like winning with character and helping so many young people win with character. 

Bob: Well, I would, I mean, I really like the whole idea character because the character is something that really embraces a set of values. And I'd be interested in specifically what the values you're thinking of. And quite frankly, some of those values, particularly with young kids as they deal with adversity and some some type of resistance in their own life and how do they persevere through that? And how do they learn that resilience and perseverance are important character traits in themselves? A lot of kids learn that in sports, that you go out there and sports is like a miniature life. There's ups, there's downs, there's good times and bad times. And you just got to learn how to persevere through all of that. But what are your — what are the values that you think that you really want to embrace or what are the values of character that you really think that your, your outreach to young kids, what are those value sets that you're trying to instill in their lives? 

Jay: That's a great question. I think the biggest thing that we're going to circle around is servanthood. We want to, we really want to be, you know, teach the curriculum of how important it is to serve people and how important it is to have humility. And that's something I've learned throughout my journey. Like you said, I've played a couple of different positions, and I've had firsthand experience with, you know, coming here and not necessarily getting the starting quarterback role. But I had to make a decision. Do I want to stay and just, you know, sort of do that or do I want to help the team in other areas because I'm athletic and I could do things. So I've had firsthand experience with making decisions that are best for the team. And, you know, a lot of people in our organization have made similar decisions. And I think that's one of the biggest, you know, principles we want, we want to preach is just having that humility, having that servanthood attitude to where, you know, they take that and it'll really help them later on in their lives.

Sally: And we can be part of that by going on to a website and ordering a Matter is the Minimum, sir.

Jay:Yes, ma'am. You can go to That's our website. It'll explain our story, our mission and our merch. It has a little tab for you to purchase a shirt. And all the proceeds of those of those shirts go to our non-profit Original Design.

Sally: That's fantastic. I know, President Caslen, I'm going to be on there later. I'll get one for you, too, because I'm going to have to have one of those shirts.

Bob:  I need one.

Sally: Yeah, that's really good.

Sally: Well, Jay, cannot thank you enough for taking time to join us today, but also for all that you're working on and for all of the children who are going to benefit from what you care so deeply about.

Jay: Yes, ma'am. Thank you so much for having me.

Bob: And let me just say, you know, I really love the idea of service, what you are through what you're doing right now, are just kind of a living example of what service is all about. Is a great parable that says the greatest among you as a servant among you. So congratulations. You keep doing what you do and keep serving.

Jay: Yes, sir. Thank you.

Sally:  And that's all for this episode of State of the University with Bob Caslen. Hope you'll join us next month for another episode. For the University of South Carolina, I'm Sally McKay. Bye for now and Forever to Thee.

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