Would McConnell's support of Confederate flag harm College of Charleston diversity efforts?

This August 1999 file photo shows Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell in the CSA Galleries store in Northwoods Mall. At least two Charleston NAACP leaders question McConnell's credentials for becoming the next president of teh College of Charleston, saying that his longtime association with Confederate causes could present a negative image of the school to the state's minority students. (File.Wade Spees/Staff) Buy this photo

Some state legislators are pushing hard for Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell to be hired as the next president of the College of Charleston, citing his leadership skills and a reservoir of respect built up over more than three decades as a state legislator.

Diversity at S.C. colleges, universities

College Undergraduates % minority % black

Francis Marion 3,780 50% 47%

Winthrop 5,029 37% 30%

South Carolina 23,363 21% 11%

The Citadel 2,629 20% 9%

C of C 10,506 14% 6%

Clemson 16,562 13% 6%

*Numbers are for fall of 2012, the most recent data available

S.C. Commission on Higher Education

But support is far from unanimous. At least two Charleston NAACP leaders question McConnell's credentials, saying that his longtime association with Confederate causes could present a negative image of the school to the state's minority students.

Recent diversity efforts at C of C

Approved college's first diversity strategic plan.

Directed $125,000 in new scholarship funding to recruiting minority students.

Increased funding for pre-college programs supporting minority students.

Hired additional staff to recruit diverse students from South Carolina high schools.

Approved undergraduate major and hired new faculty in African American Studies.

Expanded diversity training for faculty.

Created the Eddie Ganaway Diversity Education and Resource Center.

Scheduled an annual College of Charleston "Diversity Week" to celebrate domestic and global diversity at the college.

Sponsored an annual Student Diversity Conference.

Established an annual Diversity Signature Speaker Series, in which nationally renowned speakers address diversity issues.

College of Charleston's Office of Institutional Diversity

That's important because the percentage of minority students, especially black students, enrolled at the college is one of the lowest among the state's higher education. School leaders have been trying to turn that around in recent years, but it's slow work.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, a longtime civil rights activist and first vice president of the Charleston NAACP, said he knows McConnell and thinks "he's a very decent gentleman."

But McConnell "has been very visible on the Confederate flag issue, and it's still a hot-button issue.

"Although McConnell has shown his ability to work across racial lines," Darby said, "the greater concern would be the symbolism."

McConnell, 67, of Charleston, is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is a Civil War re-enactor and is the former owner of a store that sold Confederate memorabilia, flags and other items. He also is a prominent face associated with the flying of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds, a move that prompted the NAACP to call for an economic boycott of South Carolina.

After a highly contentious debate in 2000, legislators eventually yielded the compromise of moving the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome to the grounds, next to a Confederate memorial. Opponents argue that that location is even more prominent.

McConnell was elected to the state Senate in 1980 and served for 32 years, the last 11 years as president pro tempore. He was arguably one of the most powerful men in South Carolina, but state law last year required him to move into the lieutenant governor's office when Ken Ard resigned after being indicted for ethics violations.

During his years in the Senate, McConnell earned wide respect among legislators as a fair and honest man who was willing to work with all members. That included many members of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, even though many of them disagreed with his stance on the flag and other issues.

McConnell has been unapologetic in his support of the flag. He argued in the late 1990s that eradicating symbols of the Old South could lead to "cultural genocide."

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, is one of the legislators who strongly supports McConnell being hired as the next president of the college. He cited the enormous amount of support McConnell had among people who served with him in the General Assembly, including black legislators.

McConnell, who is a graduate of the college, would do a great job as its next president, Merrill said. He's an experienced leader, has a deep knowledge and understanding of South Carolina and is respected statewide.

Merrill also said that he thinks that McConnell's interest in historical and Confederate issues would have "no bearing at all" on diversity at the college. "Anyone who would talk about his support of his Southern heritage as a detriment is ignorant. It's awful."

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, also have said they would like McConnell to be hired as the college's next president.

Another legislator in McConnell's corner is Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, who is black. Jackson served with McConnell for many years in the Senate, and he said he thinks McConnell would make a great president. "If Glenn McConnell become president of the College of Charleston, the African-American community could have no better friend," he said.

McConnell worked hard to have the African-American monument placed on the Statehouse grounds, Jackson said. He also worked with black legislators to approve allocations of lottery money to the state's mostly private historically black colleges. Those schools have received $5 million to $7 million a year in lottery funds since 2002, he said.

"There are two kinds of people who are enamored with the Confederacy," Jackson said. People like McConnell are focused on historical aspects, according to Jackson, who said McConnell is not part of the other group, who are rednecks who want power over others.

Jackson said he's not trying to influence board members to hire McConnell. "But I would love for trustees from the school to reach out to talk to me."

Darby, who is the presiding elder of the 33 churches in the AME Church's Beaufort District, said that the next president of the college likely should have a proven track record for enhancing diversity. "The college apparently has a culture that diminishes diversity."

McConnell said he's not sure if he will apply for the president's post at the college, but he knows he has to make up his mind soon. The deadline for applications is Jan. 14.

If he applies and is hired, he said, he would actively address diversity at the college. The percentage of minority students there is too low, he said. "That's not something to be proud of," and he said turning it around would be one of his goals. "We've got to get those numbers up. The makeup of the student body should reflect society."

He also said he would bring his leadership experience to improve his alma mater. He has demonstrated that he can jump in and make a difference at an organization. After he became lieutenant governor last year, he said, he made strides at the Office on Aging, which fell under his purview, including restructuring the agency, bringing in more money for services and raising awareness about the struggles the state's seniors face.

He doesn't think his interest in Civil War history would negatively affect increasing diversity at the college. He has demonstrated the ability to work closely with the Black Caucus, he said. "I used my power to be fair and inclusive in the Senate."

And he emphasized that he was not interested only in Confederate history. He's interested in Civil War history. For instance, he said, when he participates in re-enactments of Civil War battles, sometimes he plays a Confederate soldier and other times a Union soldier. "The hobby is about bringing history to life. It's a form of education."

State Rep. Robert Brown, a Hollywood Democrat who also is black, said he has known McConnell for about 13 years.

The average person might think that McConnell's support of the Confederate flag and other issues could hinder diversity at the college. But, he said, "I know him to be a fair person."

He's not pushing for McConnell to be hired, and he also is not opposed to it, he said. But, "I would ask Glenn, if he were hired, to back off from some Confederate activities to take that off the table."

The college's Board of Trustees ultimately will hire a president after reviewing a final pool of at least three candidates selected by a search committee.

That pool likely will be named in February, school officials said.

Greg Padgett, chairman of the college's board and search committee, said he would not comment on McConnell, but that the school is committed to a thorough and fair search process. Lynn Cherry, speaker of the faculty, said she had no comment on McConnell, but her group in September passed a resolution calling for the board to hire someone knowledgeable and experienced in higher education.

Benjamin D. Reese Jr., president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said he doesn't know McConnell. But "part of the role of a president, explicit and implicit, is to be the face of a university and to project its values and sense of direction."

For many people, "A leader's view and history get tied up in the perception of the institution. Whether that's intentional or not doesn't matter. It's a human process," said Reese, a clinical psychologist at Duke University.

He also said that the bar for increasing diversity recently has been raised for higher-education leaders. It used to be enough to state a commitment to diversity, he said. "Now the bar is at demonstrating a track record of leading an institutional change at an institution that's similar in some way."

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, said she has been meeting regularly with college officials as they try to increase diversity at the campus. She doesn't know McConnell well, but she said he is known for wanting the Confederate flag to fly in a sovereign position.

Many at the school are sincere in their intention to boost diversity, she said. If the school hired McConnell, she said, "that's not going to send a signal that we're moving forward."

She thinks that institutions in South Carolina continue to hire a small, select group of people as leaders. "We refuse to go outside South Carolina," she said. "We're inbred."

If the college wants to improve diversity, she said, it should hire someone who has a record of doing that. That's important if the school wants to meet its goal, she said. "A lot of minority students just don't feel welcome there."

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