Post and Courier
August 30, 2014

Despite resistance from hundreds, College of Charleston leaders stand by hiring of Glenn McConnell

Posted: 03/28/2014 01:42 p.m.
Updated: 03/28/2014 02:39 p.m.


By Andrew Knapp By Diane Knich By Schuyler Kropf

Despite mounting opposition from students, faculty and other critics, College of Charleston leaders Friday stuck by their decision to hire Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the school's next president.

That's not what protesters wanted to hear as hundreds of students walked out of early afternoon classes and assembled at the center of campus, forming a chorus of disapproval.

"No tuition without representation" read one sign in the crowd. "Walk out! Walk out!" they chanted.

At the same time, critics from the Southern Poverty Law Center stirred up some of McConnell's past statements about Confederate history that they say make him unsuitable for the top post.

McConnell, meanwhile, told The Post and Courier on Friday that his record is marked by inclusion, saying extreme factions are trying to distort what he's accomplished for South Carolinians of all races as a past member of the General Assembly.

"I'm not going to take the bait of anger from these organizations and go down the road of opening old controversies and ill-will and hard feelings," he said. "The rest of us have moved on."

McConnell said he didn't think his selection would hurt in his future fundraising role for the school. He is scheduled to meet with a group of minority college students Monday during a session arranged by former state Sen. Robert Ford, a black Democrat from Charleston and one of McConnell's closest allies in the Legislature.

Holding fast

Friday's protest at the college was the fourth of the week. Attendance has grown each time.

Sylvie Baele, a senior from Johns Island, earlier this month had been a part of what started out as a small group of students and NAACP officials who tried to dissuade the Board of Trustees from choosing McConnell. The trustees hired him March 22.

When Baele saw the hundreds of students Friday in the Cistern Yard, she figured the movement was blossoming. "I think this means we're gaining momentum," she said.

If the effort will see the result its members seek, though, remained unlikely.

Board Chairman Greg Padgett said "students have a right to express their views" but that the trustees are not backing down. He wasn't worried that the controversy could harm the school's fundraising efforts or discourage students from attending and faculty members from staying. He was confident that McConnell would start healing the rift on campus once he takes the reins.

"He'll be very inclusive," Padgett said, "and work with all constituent groups."

The board hasn't yet negotiated a contract with McConnell, he said. The state recently informed the board that it would cover $188,000 of McConnell's salary, a benefit that many schools statewide receive. The college's foundation traditionally would chip in more funds for McConnell's pay.

The notice from the state was the first step in the contract process, but Padgett said he wasn't sure when it would be finished. Without a deal, details such as the length of McConnell's tenure were unclear.

Baele said students plan to meet this weekend to discuss their push for next week. They might reach out to alumni in future rallies, she said.

"With their donations," Baele said, "they have a lot of sway."

Corey Craig, a junior from Goose Creek, helped lead the protesters from the Cougar Mall to the Cistern Yard. He was one of two students ejected from a women's basketball game the night before at the TD Arena after holding up a sign alleging corruption among the trustees. College officials said a disclaimer on tickets reserves the college's right to boot out anyone whose conduct is "offensive."

Craig only recently started protesting the hiring, he said, because he didn't think that McConnell would get the job and that the opposition McConnell faced among faculty members and students would be too much to overcome.

"I wasn't worried," he said. "I was na´ve."

Past statements

Since the hiring, detractors have questioned McConnell's stance on racial issues and brought up his past comments on Confederate history. One of those in opposition has been the hate-speech watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On Friday, a representative posted on YouTube an audio recording from an April 2007 radio appearance in which McConnell discussed the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. The show is called "The Political Cesspool."

At the time, McConnell was a state senator from Charleston, the Senate president pro tempore and the Hunley restoration project's lead spokesman. It was one of the hundreds of media interviews about the sub effort he had done nationally and abroad.

Host John Edwards of the Memphis, Tenn.-area station then steered the telephone interview toward the Confederate battle flag controversy in South Carolina. McConnell gave a history of the flag being placed on the Capitol dome beginning with the Civil War centennial anniversary in the 1960s and the later legislative effort to move it to the Statehouse grounds.

"Nobody had a problem with it until all of a sudden - I believe it was in the 1980s - that the NAACP discovered that they were offended by it," he said.

He then discussed the compromise that put a more square-shaped rebel banner outside the Statehouse. McConnell praised the agreement for what he called its biracial and bipartisan support.

"Everybody was happy but the NAACP," he said. "For all fair-minded people, the controversy was resolved long ago."

The connected travel and economic boycott of South Carolina by the NAACP, McConnell said, had "the effect of a burp in the whirlwind."

John Glasstetter, campaign director with the law center, posted the nearly six-minute recording. He characterized the appearance as an "attack" on the NAACP, while also noting the pro-white political bent of the show, its host and its message.

"Well, isn't that rich," Glasstetter said. "There's nothing like going on a white nationalist program called 'The Political Cesspool' to nurture the fabric of mutual respect and attack the NAACP for fanning the flames of intolerance."

"At best, McConnell showed poor judgment by appearing on the program," he said.

Posted on its website, the show's mission statement says that it stands for the "Dispossessed Majority. We represent a philosophy that is pro-white and are against political centralization."

McConnell on Friday said he's done hundreds of radio and other media interviews in support of the Hunley. He said he could take partial credit for the compromise on the flag.

"I was one of the ones that authored the amendment to move the flag," he said. "I took a lot of criticism for it."

The scene on campus

While the protesters assembled on campus Friday, Ryan Tarrance walked through their rally while clutching a Confederate battle flag. A video camera was strapped to his chest.

But his appearance was just a passing visit. Students yelled for him to leave, and he did.

The Charleston resident, who doesn't attend the school, said he showed up because he was tired of hearing people trash the flag.

"It's about heritage and not hate," Tarrance said. "That's it."

The rally's organizers had urged students in leaflets to walk out of class and gather around 1:15 p.m. More than 300 had assembled 15 minutes later.

Minutes after that, it started to rain. But the students persisted for another half-hour.

One strummed an acoustic guitar while another young man sang a song that the duo said was written for the protest. It featured curse words and evoked laughter.

Biology professor Phil Dustan watched the demonstration.

A survey, Dustan noted, found that 83 percent of the faculty thought McConnell would not be suitable for the top post at the college.

"It's pretty clear the good ol' boy system is alive and well on the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees," he said. "They solicited us for our opinions, then just ignored them."

Chris Hanclosky contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.