In case you haven’t heard the uproar, the College of Charleston Board of Trustees voted over the weekend to install Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the former president pro tem of the state Senate, as the next president of the school.
That decision has sparked protests, sit-ins, and petitions from students and faculty, who decry McConnell’s lack of academic experience and his history of defending the Confederate flag’s presence on Statehouse grounds. The Student Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the Board of Trustees this week because of the Board’s decision to pick McConnell over two experienced academic administrators.
Last week, before the decision had been announced, McConnell appeared on campus to answer questions from students, but some found his responses evasive. “He gave no direct answers to our questions,” said Camille Weaver, social outreach chair of the college’s Black Student Union. “It’s like he was filibustering on the Senate floor.”
We called McConnell and asked him a few questions of our own:
City Paper: The contract still isn’t finalized, correct? [The Board of Trustees] voted, but you haven’t signed the contract yet?
Glenn McConnell: They’ve already made the offer, and I’ve accepted. Those are just formalities there.
CP: So you have signed the contract?
GM: The written contract, no, but they made a formal offer to me, they called and made me an offer, and I accepted. The rest of it is just a few details.
CP: Looking forward to your first few years in office, what are some things you’d like to accomplish as president?
“I don’t think a forced merger is the way to go.”
GM: Well, there are several things I’m going to immediately move on. I am going to move on the question of trying to be constructive in the debate about where things are going with this merger. I don’t think a forced merger is the way to go.
Instead, what I would hope they would do is just give the college — under current law, the college is also the university of Charleston — I need the legislature to tweak that statute to give us some tools so that if we want to do some targeted research as the university of Charleston or we want to offer advanced degrees in the Charleston area in collaboration with other schools, then we can do that with that mechanism. What that does is ensures that the college remains the college and that we meet the needs of students, in the business community, in advanced studies, and in research. The cultures in those two schools [MUSC and CofC], it would be very difficult to have a forced merger.
I like the Claremont Colleges approach out in California. So that’s kind of the approach I’m taking about how we proceed forward and transform the college. It maintains an excellent liberal arts core, but it also can be relevant to the changing educational needs of our community. And that gives me as president of the school a stronger position to sit down at a table with MUSC and say, “We’d like to collaborate with y’all on some things we think people need and want.”
I’ll also look at how to collaborate with some other universities across the state, because everything that I’ve looked at and studied indicates that you can have accomplishments in that area and minimize costs. The president is just who makes the large decisions about how we fill needs, so that’s kind of where I’m going in regards to avoiding the merger. I just don’t think a forced merger is the way to go, and I’m going to try to get those folks that want a forced merger to understand that this is a positive approach, it’ll bring a greater benefit, [and] we can accomplish the same thing in the future if the need arises or the opportunity comes. But if we wait and we don’t have those tools, some other school will get that and grow larger footprints in the Charleston area.
CP: I’m sure you’re aware of the opposition that’s been growing against your coming there as president, including the Black Student Union, the local NAACP, and a lot of students and faculty when they were polled. Last night the Student Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the Board of Trustees because of their decision. What will you do to win those groups’ confidence?
“Most of those people have never met me, they don’t know me, they’ve not had a conversation with me … I believe you judge people on their record.”
GM: Well, I’ll reach out to those groups. Most of those people have never met me, they don’t know me, they’ve not had a conversation with me. I look forward to having a dialogue with those groups and working with them. I believe you judge people on their record and what they produce. So I hate that we got off from the rest of what I wanted to do when you asked about my goals at the college, but I’m going to reach out to those groups.
Look, what I learned when I took over as President Pro Tem of the Senate, I took over at the worst possible time. A lot of division, Republicans had voted to throw out the old system, people had lost their chairmanships, their offices, everything. A bunch of ill will. And I had to reach over that and create an organizational framework that involved both Republicans and Democrats in that Senate, and then take that Senate to places, as an institution, that it hadn’t been. That’s called reaching out, being inclusive and fair with folks, and taking their opinions into consideration in your decision-making …
The Republicans and Democrats, black and white, liberal and conservative, got up and said that was my legacy, was bringing people together, treating people fairly, being inclusive. I appointed African Americans to the [Judicial] Screening Committee, we doubled the number of judges. Myself and some of the other primarily African-American members of the Senate, we got the lottery money to help black colleges across South Carolina —
CP: That was to help all colleges.
GM: But the idea was to be inclusive and to reach across. Now I want to go back to the earlier question. You asked what are some of my first things. One of the other things I wanted to do is I want to attack that diversity issue. Six percent [African-American enrollment at the college] is all they’ve been able to attain. I plan to change that. I plan to make material gains in that. I’m going to rethink everything we’re doing. I’m going to look at how to raise money for some scholarships in that particular area. How do I reach out to guidance counselors to become our ambassadors to steer those students in our direction so that we have a chance to get them, and to indicate to people that the College of Charleston — some people have this idea that it’s a very expensive rich person’s school, and we’ve got to dispel that and reach out and get them in. So I’m going to really pay some strong attention on that question of diversity. You can’t be satisfied with six percent, and that’s what it’s been today, and that’s got to change.
Then I want to reach out to the faculty, and it’s a shared governance system. My skill set is shared governance. That’s what I did in the Senate, and you could talk to the Democrats. They’ll tell you that as president pro tem I included them, I didn’t shut them out. At the college, I hope to work with the faculty on these issues and get their input. I’ll be an accessible person, and I want to try to create confidence that I am interested and that we can work together. It’s about increasing the excellence, the accessibility, and affordability of an education at the college, and that’s what it’s going to be about.
CP: On the issue of diversity, while I don’t doubt your intentions, there is a certain animosity because of your history defending the Confederate flag, proposing Confederate Memorial Day. What do you say to the student groups on campus and the —
GM: Let’s stop on your question, because I voted for the bill that made Confederate Memorial Day and Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday.
CP: Right, but —
GM: You talk to Sen. Ford. He knows the history of all that legislation. That was his bill, and he knows about the resistance from corners when he tried to get Martin Luther King’s birthday as an exclusive holiday. What they had was you picked elective holidays. You picked which one as a state employee you wanted to honor. Sen. Ford’s legislation made both holidays mandatory holidays. So that’s really what happened there. That’s not about me proposing that, that’s just patently incorrect. Whoever told you that or insinuated that —
“Those of us on both sides of [the Confederate flag debate], we got harshly criticized for that compromise, but the mainstream of South Carolina was happy with it.”
Now, on the flag compromise, look: That was a very acrimonious time. The mainstream on both sides wanted to settle it. We took four flags down: the one on the dome, the one over each podium, the one in the hall, and then we put a soldier’s flag and a soldier’s monument. Those of us on both sides of that question, we got harshly criticized for that compromise, but the mainstream of South Carolina was happy with it. And I’m not going to go back and open old wounds and animosities over this. We settled it, we moved forward, and we thought we did so in a great thing.
The other thing we did over time was we created the only monument that I know of on Statehouse grounds in America to the struggle for civil rights [fact check: false]: The African-American history monument. We raised funds, we built it, it is a world-class monument which tells that story. And we tried to make sure that — look, we have a diverse group across the state — that the Statehouse grounds talked to both people, and we tried to make sure it did. That’s about all I can say. I don’t know what else to say about it. We closed the chapter, we took the criticism among the hardliners on both sides, but all of us in the middle that wanted the thing behind us got it behind us.
CP: I wanted to ask you about a recent issue that came up where legislators voted to cut some funding from the college because it had distributed a book written by a lesbian to freshman students, and they objected to some of the content. If you had been president of the college while that was happening, what would you have done or said in response?
GM: I can only tell you what I hear and what I know, but if I would have been president, I would not have gotten into an argument with them. I would have just said, “Look, give me your views, and I will take them back and convey them back to that committee and let them know how you feel so they can consider that in their future decision-making.” And I would have thanked them for their input. I wouldn’t have gotten into a showdown and a confrontation with them and whatnot. So I believe that would have been the end of it.
That being said, I can only hope that the General Assembly will not make that cut, and so in the Senate I hope that the cut gets restored.
CP: Some of your supporters have been saying they’re glad you were chosen because the college has gotten too liberal. Is that a concern for you? Are you at all interested in changing the political climate in the academic setting?
GM: Let me tell you, I think the greatest strength that a college or university can have is its ability to have free thought and that it be inclusive of all of the different philosophies. That there is supposed to be a place where you go to learn about different things, not to be like everybody else. It’s to learn about life’s experience and what’s out there. You can make your own decision. College gave me the ability to think and to weigh different things, and so I’m not there to instill my philosophy or something. I’m there to, I hope, move the educational experience forward, for those who may have some opportunity for targeted research to have that, advanced study platforms for our community
On punitive funding cuts based on book choices: “I wouldn’t have gotten into a showdown and a confrontation with them and whatnot. So I believe that would have been the end of it.”
The college is about serving our community, the students, and the economic environment, and so I’m there to enrich that. I don’t have a problem with diversity. I found in the Legislature that hearing other things that I hadn’t heard, it helped me. And the best example I can give you is I started out as a legal aide. I got a chance to see a diverse world that most people as a lawyer never get to see. Being lieutenant governor, I’ve gotten out and seen the struggles of South Carolinians trying to make it at home, these seniors. Life is about learning, so that’s how I see it.
CP: Is there anything you would like to say directly to the folks in Charleston who have opposed your selection as president?
GM: I would say to them that most of them really don’t know me. They’re acting on what somebody told them. I hope they will judge me on my record of what I do for the college, where I proceed, and I hope that they will give me their input and their ideas. I’ll be reaching out to the different constituencies in the college, but I want the college to succeed. We all ultimately have the same aim: Enhance the student experience with affordable and accessible education. And so that’s just the best thing I could tell them. I’m going to reach out to them. I look forward to trying to move the college forward, and I think that we’ve got some great challenges ahead and we need to start tackling those.