During Glenn McConnell’s interview for president of the College of Charleston, I asked him how, as president, he would have responded to the blatant homophobic attacks on Fun Home by the state’s House of Representatives, including one member who called the graphic novel “obscene” and “pornograhic” — it’s not. McConnell answered by saying that CofC President George Benson shouldn’t have fought with the House Budget Committee over its decision to punish the school for handing out the book to first-year students. In McConnell’s mind, Benson should have simply thanked the Budget Committee and returned to campus. McConnell later added that he has no problem with LGBTQ people being on campus. However, he ominously added, “It’s not my job to judge people. Someone else will do that.”
I wasn’t the only person to press McConnell. One student asked him quite respectfully about the photo that had circulated of McConnell in a Confederate uniform, with two black people in period dress on either side of him, smiling. McConnell told her, “Those people were not slaves. They were Gullah reenactors.” The student then noted that the image certainly appears to be of McConnell and slaves, given how rare it would have been for a Confederate soldier to be socializing with free blacks in the 19th century. McConnell responded, “They’re free blacks, and people who don’t know this should educate themselves.”
The student asked a follow-up question: Given the images circulating of him dressed as a Confederate soldier, how would McConnell make CofC a safe, more diverse campus. The student, who is black, then pointed out that McConnell’s photo will almost certainly result in fewer black students applying to the college, which, sadly, has a pretty dismal number of minority students. “How,” she asked, “will you reconcile your image with the image and values of the college?” His answer was brief: “”Knowledge is liberty,” the English translation of CofC’s Latin slogan. Needless to say, he didn’t actually answer the question.
It’s a shame. I really expected McConnell would have given some lip service to diversity. At the very least, I thought he would have given a little song and dance about how supportive he is of a campus that includes individuals of many races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, even gender identities — although I suspect he doesn’t know what that is. Instead, his interview demonstrated that, one, he doesn’t understand diversity and, two, he doesn’t believe that certain kinds of diversity should be embraced and supported.
CofC has a growing number of LGBTQ students. Transgender students, in particular, have been successfully lobbying for living spaces and bathrooms that are gender neutral. This is a group that’s been increasingly welcomed here. McConnell’s answer to me — his statement that someone else will judge the LGBTQ population — seems to suggest a belief that this group will be judged by God (and let’s assume not in a friendly way). No matter what he meant by this, it isn’t an appropriate statement for any administrative official at any public college to make. And it’s no wonder that many LGBTQ students are outraged. Some are even afraid.
When it comes to the matter of McConnell’s photograph, his answer was clearly dismissive. When she accurately noted that the picture sends a racist message — regardless of McConnell’s intent — he said that she should educate herself. For him, the problem apparently wasn’t the photograph, it was that outsiders weren’t doing their background research to know how he really feels.
And when it comes to his feelings, McConnell really loves the Confederate flag — not one of the three CSA national flags, mind you. The one that the lieutenant champions — the Army of Northern Virginia Confederate battle flag — didn’t gain widespread popularity until after the Civil War, while a similar flag, the Confederate Naval Jack, became the much beloved symbol of Jim Crow-era segregationists. As a lover of history, McConnell should know this, and yet what he has done throughout his governmental career is argue for the flag to be omnipresent in South Carolina — not behind glass in a museum but on the grounds of the state capital, on people’s T-shirts, bumper stickers, even stickers on lunch boxes. And for years he sold these trinkets emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag at CSA Galleries, the store he owned.
Regardless of his inner feelings, McConnell has to know there’s no decent argument he can make for actively promoting the flag. And there’s no decent argument he can make for suggesting that LGBTQ faculty, staff, and students, as a whole, will judged by God for their sexual identities.
Those indecent arguments, though, seem to play very well with South Carolina legislators and the CofC Board of Trustees. On March 22, the board happily announced that they were offering the job of president of the College of Charleston to Glenn McConnell. In response, news of McConnell’s selection spread, with many major academic trade publications reporting on the matter.
As it stands now, students from out of state have begun expressing their discomfort with attending CofC, and on-campus leaders have begun to speculate that high schoolers who aren’t bigoted, straight, white guys will be less likely to apply here. And if happens, College of Charleston will, as Chris Haire pointed out, become a third-rate institution.
Alison Piepmeier suggests you go look at a brand new website, fightforcofc.com.