Overheard last week inside Randolph Hall prior to Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell's question-and-answer session about his desire to be the new College of Charleston president:

SHE (with husband to another couple): "We're from Long Island, and our daughters are enrolled in the college. They're exceptional students, and we're happy! Our worry is they'll meet some Jersey boys on campus who'll take them away."

HE (of the other couple): "Ha! We like it down here too - especially the weather."

They were four of approximately 40 faculty and staff members, donors and others arriving to meet McConnell, one of three finalists for the presidency. The guests seated themselves in the venerable hall below colorful oil paintings of college founders, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence and three framers of the Constitution. A large marble plaque on one wall says:

"In grateful memory of Ephraim Baynard of Edisto Island, S.C., who in the year 1864, by his munificent donation of $166,000 made in the darkest hour of his country's adversity, preserved this institution to perpetuate its usefulness to the youth of his native state."

Mr. Baynard, a plantation owner, died in 1865. His "country" was the Confederate States of America, and his gift the most money the college had ever received to that point. The plaque was dedicated in 1911, when enrollment was 74, all white males - 33 Charlestonians, 38 from elsewhere in South Carolina and three from out of state. Today's enrollment is 11,500 men and women - 4,000 from out of state, 7,300 females, 4,200 males, and 700 minorities. The endowment is $60 million.

'Knowledge itself is liberty'

McConnell - Class of 1969 and former president of the student body of 400 - stood at the front and said that raising tuition and increasing debt on students is not the right model for the college. He cited the importance of the college to the city - its history, art, culture and conservation.

The college, he said, must preserve its liberal arts tradition and develop collaborative educational platforms that will give it more opportunity to succeed. And the College of Charleston clearly needs more money from the state, businesses, alumni and others to carry out its mission.

"If we are weak," he continued, "we will be absorbed, because this is a public college, and the General Assembly can do whatever it wants to us. But I am not weak. I am a consensus-builder who was elected the leader of the Senate at the most contentious time in its history. The question is, do we shape our college's future, or do we let someone else shape it for us?"

McConnell was asked what he would do to increase minority enrollment.

"Get more students from the tri-county area. We lack a good support structure, especially out in our high schools. We need to work with guidance counselors and alumni, explain what we offer, and make them our ambassadors."

He was asked about a legislative attempt to merge with the Medical University of South Carolina.

"I don't see a great deal of benefit. Anything forced on us is not acceptable."

What about the House vote to cut $52,000 budgeted for a college reading program because an illustrated memoir about homosexuality was assigned reading for incoming freshmen?

"I believe in a liberal arts education, and expect each student to draw his or her own conclusion about such issues. That's what I do personally. I've read the American Association of University Professors' statement that defines academic freedom, and I agree with it. I also understand how legislators think and react. I would have advised that the books [purchased with state funds] should not be issued free to students as assigned reading."

McConnell was asked about a photo of him wearing a Confederate re-enactor uniform and smiling as he stands between two African-American women who appear to be dressed as slaves. The photo was cited recently during a demonstration where NAACP representatives and others insinuated that he had racist views.

"That photograph was taken at a history re-enactment event," McConnell said. "The women standing with me are members of the Gullah/Geechee community, and they dressed as free artisans, not slaves. It's important for all of us to understand our history and our heritage, and to recognize attempts to misrepresent the facts with political spin. Truth is freedom. Knowledge sets you free."

NOTE: The Latin motto on the College of Charleston's seal means: "Knowledge itself is liberty."

Mission Control

Irony makes for interesting reading, and the session inside Randolph Hall was filled with it. The College of Charleston's motto has been noted, and its mission statement says the school's goal is first, to serve students of the Lowcountry, then to serve those of the state and then those of the Southeast. But the focus of administrations of the last two presidents has taken the college in a different direction.

The institution began in 1770 as a church school before changing to a private academy, before becoming a municipal college, then being made private again. Today it is a state university that calls itself a college.

Its enrollment has ranged from less than 20 to more than 12,000, and housing is a major problem. Residents of peninsular Charleston are very aware of problems associated with overcrowding. The campus covers 52 acres - most of it downtown - and includes a grand basketball arena of recent vintage. And this year the college joined another athletic conference with schools up the coast, much farther away.

The goal now, it seems, is to recruit students and raise awareness as well as financial support in the vicinity of Long Island.

John M. Burbage has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. He lives in downtown Charleston and has a farm in Hampton County.