COLUMBIA - To hear some students and faculty members at the College of Charleston tell it, the fix was in.
The college's search process that ended March 22 in the selection of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the school's next president was rife with speculation and politicking. There was a drumbeat from state legislators for McConnell to get the job, leading to accusations that political connections had trumped more qualified candidates.
College of Charleston students and faculty felt like they were cut out of the process, which one professor called a sham. Charleston-area lawmakers said they did their job.
Most college board members are elected by the General Assembly, so they are more connected to the Statehouse than the school, said college senior Adrian Barry, reflecting a common view on campus. "The Statehouse is the source of the problem," Barry said. "The Board of Trustees is their instrument."
Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said he and others made their views known that McConnell was the right pick. But the college went ahead and commissioned an "unwieldy" search committee, he said. The only people the college didn't get an opinion from, Merrill joked, were shrimpers on Shem Creek.
"We elect them and we are responsible for their actions," Merrill said of the Board of Trustees. "In this instance, the College of Charleston is at a crossroads. It was incumbent upon us to make it known they had an outstanding candidate. If somebody felt pressured by that . that's unfortunate."
Many lawmakers have known McConnell throughout his long career, including 32 years in the S.C. Senate. They see him as a pragmatist who has the vision to lead the college through a time of shrinking public support and to champion the value of a liberal arts education to those who hold the purse strings.
Greg Padgett, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the process followed all meeting laws and was as open and as transparent as it could be. "There was no fix," Padgett said of the board's decision. "Trustees made the decision. They followed the process."
Merrill and others said that those who believe lawmakers simply did a favor for a friend don't understand lawmakers' depth of admiration of McConnell. There are few others who would have gained such widespread backing from Republicans and Democrats alike, he and others said.
"It may not be what all these special interest groups want," said Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. "They got the right guy, and that's the most important thing."
McConnell said that some of his traits that were viewed as negatives by some on campus, such as his political connections, were looked on positively by trustees. He told them that some of the college's most successful leaders have had careers in public service, including former presidents Ted Stern and Alex Sanders.
"I had the right skill sets for this particular time in the college's history," McConnell said, as many want the school to become a larger, comprehensive research university. McConnell said that a tweak in state law would allow the college to become a research university and offer more post-graduate programs.
With the future of the college's identity at stake, McConnell said he offers a track record of being able to build support among competing factions. In 2000, Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since the 1800s. As a Senate leader, McConnell said he worked to heal wounds and get the Senate working. Similarly, in 2000, he worked on a compromise to move the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome to a new site on the grounds, where it remains a source of considerable consternation throughout the state - and protest on campus at the College of Charleston.
The Statehouse previously had four Confederate flags. All were removed except for the one placed by the Confederate monument. The compromise was the only way the state could move on, he said.
"If it was a knockout blow either way . we were going to have a generation of resentment," McConnell said. "We needed to bring people together."
Rebel flag controversy
That controversy, though, has hardly gone away. And the compromise failed to bring people together.
While legislators voted on the compromise, the flag's placement and McConnell's role in the compromise led to an NAACP boycott of the state and other repercussions.
McConnell is also a Civil War re-enactor and the former owner of a Confederate memorabilia shop. It's a past that many on campus and others - including The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group- said should have caused college leaders to think twice.
"It's the 21st century, but McConnell is still fighting the Civil War (or the 'War Between the States,' as he calls it)," the SPLC wrote on its website. "And so too, it seems, is the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees."
McConnell said that when his portrait was unveiled in the Senate gallery, black and white lawmakers came together to praise his work reaching across party and racial lines. Now that he's landed the college's top post, he wants to look forward. He thinks that once those on campus get to know him, their views will change.
"They don't know me. Up the road, we'll be together on how we create a better experience at the college," McConnell said. "I think we're going to find lots of opportunities to work together."
As a state school with its future governed from Columbia, the College of Charleston has a leader who can maneuver fraught political waters, McConnell said.
"My pitch, I understand the system, I know the players," he said. "Day one, I don't have ... a learning curve."