South Carolina

USC trustee claims without evidence protests were ‘tied into the Democratic primary’

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the board member who made the comments on an open microphone before Friday’s meeting of the USC Board of Trustees. The comments were made by J. Egerton Burroughs.

J. Egerton Burroughs may not have intended to tell more than 100 faculty, students and media that he thought protesters were working with Democrats to undermine the University of South Carolina’s presidential search.

But the trustee said just that into a live microphone — which was broadcast to everyone watching or listening to a meeting at the Pastides Alumni Center — just minutes before USC’s board of trustees began its Friday meeting. The board eventually named former U.S. Military Academy at West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen the school’s next president.

Burroughs participated in the meeting by phone and later voted in favor Caslen.

“A lot of those people who are demonstrating are from out of town,” Burroughs said. “I’ve heard that Kamala Harris crowd is here. [Inaudible] It’s all tied into the Democratic Primary. There’s a lot of organizing that’s going on.”

It’s unclear why Burroughs insinuated Harris was trying to influence the presidential selection. Though some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on USC’s presidential search, Harris was not one of them.

“Several candidates have made comments on this process, but she isn’t one of them. We’ve had no interaction with Kamala Harris or her staff,” said Madison Baker, a junior studying political science and women’s and gender studies who attended the meeting and heard Burroughs’ comments.

Given that many of the protesters were African American, Baker said Burroughs’ comments were a “racist assumption based on the color of students here.”

Harris spokeswoman Jerusalem Demsas said Harris’ campaign was not involved in the protest, but supports “students making their voices heard about an issue that affects their education.”

It’s true that many S.C. Democrats opposed Gov. Henry McMaster’s involvement in the presidential search. Sens. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, and even 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said the governor should stay hands-off. It’s also true that some of the protest organizers — for example Ethan Magnuson — are members of USC’s College Democrats.

The closest link to Harris’ campaign was when former state representative and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers — a Harris supporter — spoke during a Wednesday rally organized by USC faculty.

After The State attributed Burroughs’ comments to board member Bubba Fennell, Burroughs issued a statement Friday evening through USC.

“I am sorry that my freind and colleague Bubba Fennell has been attacked on social media for comments he did not make before the board of trustees meeting this morning,” Burroughs said in the statement. “I made the comments but had no intention of offending those who care about the university and were present today to share their opinions.”

Aside from public statements and some friendly tweets, there is no evidence the protesters were aided, encouraged or otherwise receiving help from 2020 Democrats.

“At this point, (with) what (the) comments were, they can’t say this is not political,” said protest organizer and social work professor Bethany Bell. “We’re faculty, students, alumni. We’re not with the Harris campaign.”

What’s more, James Smith, a Democrat who lost a gubernatorial race against McMaster in 2018, publicly supported Caslen’s presidency, according to a previous article from The State.

“It’s really uncomfortable knowing one of our board members is kind of a conspiracy theorist,” said protest organizer Deanna Smith. “If he can’t find information from credible sources, I don’t know if I can trust his vote on the board.”