University of West Florida Provost Martha Saunders is the only one of three finalists for the job of president of the College of Charleston who has previously led an institution of higher learning.

What's next?

The College of Charleston Board of Trustees, the group that will vote on who will be the next president, meets Thursday through Saturday. The board will meet with each of the three finalists at some point during those three days. It could begin deliberating on who to hire as early as Saturday.

Saunders, 65, who also is the only woman still in the running for the college's top post, previously served as president of the University of Southern Mississippi and as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

She addressed and responded to questions from students, faculty, staff and community members Friday on the downtown campus. Most questions were about academic freedom, higher-education funding, diversity and a merger with the Medical University of South Carolina.

Jody Encarnation met with those same groups Wednesday, and Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell was there Thursday.

Saunders said having an extensive background in higher education is one of her strengths. "I came up through the ranks in four different systems," she said.

If she is hired to lead the college, she said, she will work to make the school "a little bigger, a littler richer and a little more beautiful."

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 battle flag flying on the Statehouse grounds could be detrimental to the college's efforts to increase diversity.

Faculty members asked Saunders to explain why she unexpectedly stepped down from the president's post at Southern Miss in 2012.

According to media reports, Saunders stepped down suddenly for personal reasons after more than four years and many successes as president.

Her announcement came the same day an unexplained financial deficit of more than $1 million emerged in the school's athletic department. Saunders said at the time that her decision had nothing to do with athletics, and she never was accused of wrongdoing. After stepping down, she taught mass communication classes at the university's Gulf Park campus.

Saunders told faculty members that she left because she didn't get along well with a new leader hired to run the commission that oversees all of that state's higher education institutions,

"An athletic budget went negative, but it was negative every year," she said. "I was happy to go back to the classroom."

Chris Piedmont, vice president of the Student Government Association, asked Saunders how she would handle attempts by the Legislature to influence which books colleges could assign to students.

The state House of Representatives this week stripped $52,000 from the college's budget - the cost of its "College Reads" program - because it didn't want to pay for the book "Fun Home," a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel.

Saunders said that college leaders are educators, and they need to better explain the concept of academic freedom to legislators.

Piedmont said he liked her answer. "We need a president who will go to bat to fight for us," he said.

Leah Knapp, associate director for recruitment for the Honors College, asked Saunders how she would bring in more money to support students. That's important, Knapp said, "because access is a big part of our mission."

Saunders said she would try not to raise tuition because "students can't bear the weight." And she knows state funding isn't going to increase dramatically. So she would look to external sources including private donors, research grants and partnerships with businesses.

Saunders also said she would try to raise scholarship money to help increase the number of minority students. She would then target recruitment at particular high schools where the college likely could bring in significant numbers of high-achieving minority students.

"I would start the pipelines," she said. "You don't have to keep the tap flowing once you've built the pipeline."

When asked what she thought about a merger between the college and MUSC, Saunders said she didn't know much about that beyond what she has read in the media. But the question in her mind is, "What problem will it solve?"

And, she added, "What I do know is that if you jeopardize the brand of an institution, you can lose a lot."

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