While fending off pointed questions about his past, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell says the years he spent leading the state Senate prepared him well to lead the College of Charleston.

McConnell, one of three finalists for the school's presidency, addressed and took questions from hundreds of students and faculty, staff and community members Thursday at the downtown campus.

He said that while he does not have an academic background, he does have extensive leadership and consensus-building experience from decades of serving in the state Legislature, 11 of those years as Senate president pro tempore. And those skills are what the college needs right now, he said.

People who attended the meetings asked questions about higher-education funding, his support of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds and a merger with the Medical University of South Carolina.

On Wednesday the first candidate, Jody Encarnation, also addressed the groups at the college. On Friday, the final candidate, Martha Saunders, will be on campus.

The new president will take over for George Benson, who will step down in June to join the college's business faculty.

Public reaction to the presidential selection process has been contentious largely because the college's board selected McConnell as one of the finalists. McConnell's supporters say his Statehouse experience could help the college get the resources it needs. His opponents say that he lacks higher-education experience, powerful state politicians were behind his being selected a finalist, and that his support of the Confederate flag flying on the Statehouse grounds could be detrimental to the college's efforts to increase diversity.

"I have the right skills for what's coming," McConnell said. He also said he earned a good reputation among all groups during his decades in the Legislature. "My word is reliable, I was fair and inclusive."

Many people who attended the sessions responded negatively to McConnell.

Morgan Koerner, a German professor, told McConnell, "If you come here as our president, there will be a huge wound. Why would you want to come here knowing you would create a wound?" McConnell responded that he would prefer that people who work for him like him, but he would be satisfied if they respect him.

The school's Faculty Senate a few months ago passed a resolution encouraging the school's board to hire a president who had academic experience.

McConnell, 67, said if he's hired, he would work with presidents from the state's public colleges and universities to develop a strong and consistent message for the General Assembly and others about the importance of properly funding higher education.

Communication professor Deborah McGee challenged McConnell, "Weren't you in the Legislature when our budgets were being cut?"

McConnell said he was, but the cuts were necessary at the time because the country was in a recession.

The most heated questions raised were about McConnell's support of the Confederate flag flying on Statehouse grounds, and his participation in Civil War re-enactments. Some people were concerned about how that might impact the college's efforts to increase campus diversity.

English professor Joe Kelly said a widely circulated 2010 photograph of McConnell dressed as a Confederate general flanked by two people who appear to be dressed as slaves could reflect poorly on the college.

"These images and acts are interpreted, in most contexts, like someone who is nostalgic for white supremacy," Kelly said.

McConnell said re-enacting is simply about making history come alive.

On the flag, McConnell said that after a highly contentious debate in 2000, legislators compromised by moving it from atop the Statehouse dome to the grounds, next to a Confederate memorial. The majority on both sides of the issue agreed to the compromise. "It's a closed issue with me," he said.

J. Denise Cromwell, a community member and activist for the homeless, said, "It's not closed to me."

McConnell said he wanted the college to be able to offer more advanced degrees and to conduct more research, but he didn't support a full-blown merger with the Medical University of South Carolina.

Instead, he would like to help modify a state statute that would allow the college to offer more advanced degrees, but remain an independent institution.

McConnell said three of the college's recent presidents - Ted Stern, Harry Lightsey and Alex Sanders - didn't have academic experience when they took the reins at the college. But they were very successful as leaders.

He thinks he can follow in their footsteps, and that it's something he wants to do for the college, which is his alma mater. The college taught him how to think, he said. "It launched me."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.