Faculty members at the College of Charleston were alarmed when they heard that local political figures were expressing interest in the soon-to-be vacant president's post.
The Faculty Senate took action this week when it unanimously passed a resolution calling for the school's Board of Trustees to conduct a national search for its next president, and to hire someone knowledgeable and experienced in higher education.
But while the faculty is pushing for someone with academic experience, the local business community is hoping for someone who understands economic development, and at least one legislator thinks the right local politician could made a great leader.
George Benson, the school's current president, announced last month that he would step down in June 2014. Since then, former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford publicly has announced that she is interested in the job, and the names of State Rep. Chip Limehouse and Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell also have been mentioned.
Todd Grantham, a philosophy professor at the college, said he decided to craft the resolution after hearing news reports that local political figures were interested in the job. He became deeply concerned, he said. “We think it's really important that someone understand the nature of higher education.”
Greg Padgett, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees, said the board is working now to create the process it will use to select the college's next president, and he said the group will be able to announce the process in about a month. He is certain it will be thorough, fair and inclusive, he said, and that it will include a national search.
The board conducted national searches before selecting Benson and his predecessor, Lee Higdon. Benson's annual salary is about $366,000, with $166,000 of that coming from the state and $200,000 from the College of Charleston Foundation.
Data presented at the Faculty Senate meeting Tuesday indicated that many faculty members are not satisfied with Benson's administration. According to data from the Great Colleges to Work For survey made available by the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 43 percent of faculty members were satisfied with the school's senior administration.
Brian McGee, Benson's chief of staff, said senior administration includes only the president and employees who directly report to him. But, he said, it was clear from written comments that some people included their perceptions of academic deans and board members in their responses.
Lynn Cherry, Speaker of the Faculty, said a new president probably won't be able to immediately improve the satisfaction with senior administration. But the new president could remedy the situation if he or she could effectively communicate faculty concerns to the board and “had an understanding and appreciation for the challenges higher education faces.”
Mary Graham, senior vice president of business advocacy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders think differently about Benson. “From our standpoint, President Benson has been a great leader to work with.”
Benson did more than work inside the college, she said, he worked in the business community as well. She hopes the next president also will have the skills to work closely with the business community. The college's liberal arts programs are important, she said, but the school also should focus on technology and business.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said he's not convinced that the college needs to conduct an expensive national search.
He has heard McConnell's name mentioned as a possible successor to Benson, and he thinks McConnell would make a great leader. “He's experienced, connected and intelligent,” Merrill said. “It would be foolish of the college not to consider him.”
The college has had other successful leaders who didn't come from academic backgrounds, he said, such as Alex Sanders, former chief judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals, who was president from 1992 to 2001.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.