Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell has been selected as the next president of the College of Charleston, despite strong opposition from faculty members, some students and the local, state and national branches of the NAACP.
The Board of Trustees voted unanimously Saturday to hire McConnell. But two of the board's 20 members, Jeff Schilz and John Wood, were not in the room at the time of the vote. A contract, which will include McConnell's salary, is pending.
The board made its selection from among three finalists. The others were long-time Harvard University professor Dennis "Jody" Encarnation and University of West Florida Provost Martha Saunders. More than 100 people applied for the job.
McConnell did not return calls or emails Saturday.
Board Chairman Greg Padgett said McConnell was hired largely because "he has decades of experience as a state leader."
Padgett said board members were aware that many people on campus were opposed to McConnell being hired, but the board had to make a tough choice about what's best for the future of the school. "McConnell has shown he's a visionary leader," he said.
Padgett also said the board will begin meeting with various groups to bring the campus back together after a difficult search process.
The selection process was contentious, largely because McConnell was named a finalist.
McConnell, 66, had many strong supporters on the board and in the state Legislature, where he previously served in the Senate for 32 years, the last 11 as president pro tempore. In that role, he built up a great deal of good will, and earned a reputation for being able to work well with other legislators across party and racial lines.
But he faced strong opposition at the college because he had no academic experience, and because some people thought his support of flying the Confederate battle flag on Statehouse grounds and participating in Civil War re-enactments might make it more difficult for the school to recruit minority students, especially black students.
To answer critics of his appointment, McConnell promised to be inclusive at the school, he told The State newspaper after Saturday's vote.
"I'm going to bring the groups together and work to build a consensus,''
he said. "We're all in to move the college forward. I think I will earn their trust out of getting results.''
Sources also have said that McConnell and Encarnation were not among the five top candidates that a 15-member search committee recommended to the board.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who supported McConnell being hired, said, "as an alum, I'm excited and optimistic."
The college, Stavrinakis said, "needs an infusion of strong leadership with ties to the General Assembly and community leaders locally."
Stavrinakis, who graduated from the college in 1988, is one of the sponsors of a bill to merge the college with the Medical University of South Carolina. He said he hasn't discussed the merger with McConnell. But he's certain McConnell will do what's best for the college.
Stavrinakis also said McConnell likely will win over opponents. "When they get to know him, they'll know him the way I do."
He also said it's impossible not to be impressed with McConnell. "He's not the caricature some people make him out to be."
But Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP said she was disappointed when she heard the news.
She thinks the search process was sabotaged by powerful McConnell supporters in the Legislature who made promises to board members in exchange for their votes. "The process didn't work," Scott said, "but the promises did."
Scott also said she thinks the NAACP will make a more complete statement in the coming days.
Brandon Upson, a 2013 graduate of the college and a veteran who served in Iraq, participated in a student and alumni protest Friday.
"I'm flabbergasted," Upson said after he heard McConnell had been hired.
He thinks board members ignored the loud cries of opposition from students and faculty members, and instead chose to vote for McConnell to preserve their seats on the board. "I think their survival instinct kicked in and the students lost," Upson said.
Members of the General Assembly elect most members of the college's board.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston and a co-sponsor of the merger bill, said he was ecstatic when he heard the news. "It's going to prove to be one of the best decisions in the history of the College of Charleston."
McConnell is especially good at building relationships, Merrill said, "and the college hasn't had that in a while."
Merrill said he also thinks McConnell will win over opponents. "The opponents, none of them, have ever worked with Glenn McConnell," he said.
And McConnell will forge a strong relationship between the college and the General Assembly. "The last few presidents have not been very attuned to the General Assembly and the politics of the state," he said. With McConnell at the helm, "it's going to be amazing.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
McConnell talks about his new job
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell gave up his 34-year political career and to go all-in for the job he craved - president of his alma mater, the College of Charleston.
An hour after he was hired by school trustees, McConnell, 66, spoke to The State newspaper about his plans for transforming the state's third-largest college with nearly 12,000 students:
Q: What will you do before starting full time?
A: He plans to spend the next few weeks balancing his duties as lieutenant governor while visiting stakeholders on campus. "I can make both of them work. ... I'm going to spend time taking inventory of everything there and learn the personalities and the issues. And I want to spend time with board members and have a clear vision of where they want to go.''
Q: What are some of your first tasks after you start full time?
A: "I want to look at the model of operation at the school. We have got to make some changes to survive as an individual school. . We have got to get the college to where it attracts money and not just keep asking for it.''
Q: How will you make the more attractive to donors?
A: The school must become more research focused, McConnell said. He will work to have legislation introduced so the school can offer doctoral degrees. "I need a bag of tools to shape our future . We need to have collaborative arrangements with other schools in the state and make those (advanced) degrees available in the local community and that will attract research money. We need to have a targeted research approach and try not to duplicate what other schools are doing.''
Q: How will you work to ease the rift with students, faculty and alumni who protested your potential hiring?
A: McConnell compared his task with when he became the first Republican Senate president pro tempore since reconstruction. "My message as president will be to be as inclusive as my (leadership) in the Senate. I'm going to bring the groups together and work to build a consensus. When I took over as Senate president pro tempore, it was one of the most contentious moments in Senate history. People were losing their chairmanships. I had to reach out and heal all those different pieces.''
Q: How will you address increasing minority enrollment?
A: "We have got to make the college look like South Carolina. We are going to address the diversity question. I will reach out to the black (legislative) caucus and others. I will reach out to churches, alumni and guidance counselors. I don't want people to think of the College of Charleston as a rich, elitist place. Everyone should see some future at the College of Charleston.''
Q: What is it like to become president of the college where you were student president?
A: "The school gave me my start. It's been a unique trip. When I was student government president, president (Theodore) Stern let me be part of his process to shape his vision for the university. I am proud to again get a chance to shape that vision.''