Within hours of the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees announcing it would hire Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the school's next president, Bill Asbill fired off an email resigning his position as a member of the college's Foundation Board, and declaring he no longer would donate to the school.
Asbill isn't the only donor concerned about the presidential search process. Brandon Upson, a 2013 alumnus who, along with students, has been protesting the process by which McConnell was hired, and George Watt, the foundation's executive director, both said donors have talked to them about the search.
It remains unclear how much Asbill has donated to the school. Asbill didn't want to specify the amount. And Watt refused to release the amount any individual donor contributed to the foundation. South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender said that represents a violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Donor concern is the latest issue to come to light in connection to the college's presidential search. Controversy has been swirling on the downtown campus since the Board of Trustees decided March 22 to hire McConnell as the school's next president. Also on Tuesday, the college's Faculty Senate voted unanimously that is has no confidence in the board.
Many students and faculty, staff and community members have expressed outrage that the board selected McConnell from a pool of more than 100 applicants. Some of them are opposed to McConnell personally because they think his lack of academic experience makes him unqualified for the job, and his support of the Confederate battle flag flying on Statehouse grounds and participation in Civil War re-enactments could make it more difficult for the school to recruit minority students. But others are critical of the process by which the Board of Trustees hired him. They think the board made a decision based on politics instead of hiring the most qualified candidate.
Board of Trustees Chairman Greg Padgett has said the board followed the law in the search process, and that it selected McConnell because members thought he was the best person to lead the school.
The College of Charleston Foundation is a nonprofit organization that raises money and promotes education and research programs. The college's Board of Trustees is the governing body of the school.
Asbill sent his email to members of the Foundation Board, as well as some trustees and college staff members.
"I have nothing personal against McConnell, I don't even know him, but I think the process was not a good one," Asbill said.
Watt said he had "received no resignation letters and got no resignation emails," from Foundation Board members over McConnell being hired, and none of them said they would withhold donations, even though he was one of the people copied on Asbill's email.
But donors have raised questions about the search process, Watt said. "I've heard and met with donors several times over the past four weeks in an attempt to assure them the process was above board."
Some donors have "the perception that there was a fix" among trustees to hire McConnell, he said. But what they have heard may have been embellished or untrue, he said.
Several members of the Foundation Board at a February meeting said the college should select the school's next president from among the five candidates recommended by a presidential search committee.
Sources with close ties to the search have said McConnell was not among the 15-member committee's top five candidates.
It remains unclear whether or how much the foundation will be willing to contribute toward McConnell's salary. Foundation Board Chairwoman Sharon Kingman did not respond to an email for comment.
Current president George Benson earns about $379,000, with $179,000 coming from the state and $200,000 coming from the foundation.
So far, the state has approved $188,000 for McConnell's salary. Padgett said McConnell's contract still is in the works, and he's not sure what McConnell ultimately will earn or other employment details.
Upson said some donors have told him and students who are organizing campus protests that they no longer would donate to the college. But, he said, none of them want to announce that publicly.
Upson also said that, included in a bill that the Student Government Association passed which stated it had no confidence in the Board of Trustees, was a call for an independent audit of the search process.
Students told McConnell they would continue to push for that when they met with him Monday, Upson said.
Freedom of Information
Bender said that while the college's foundation is a nonprofit organization, it is subject to the state's Freedom of Information law if it receives any state support.
And it does. Watt earns a $199,000 state salary for his position as the executive director of the foundation and the college's executive vice president for institutional advancement. He has an office on campus, and the Foundation Board meets in campus facilities.
But Watt said he would not release donor information. "We've never released donor information," he said. "I'll fight you on that."
Bender said that under the law, the foundation must release the names of donors and the amount they gave unless the donor specified the source of the gift must remain anonymous as a condition of giving it. "Unless the donor requests anonymity, there is no anonymity," Bender said.
At the College of Charleston, he said, "we have another example of a public body making up exceptions where they don't exist."
The college also is moving slowly on providing to the newspaper letters and emails between Kingman and members of the Board of Trustees, which was requested March 3 under the Freedom of Information Act.
Kathryn Bender, the college's lawyer, said she has asked board members to turn over those emails and documents, but they are busy and she doesn't yet have the information. She hopes to provide it to the newspaper within the next few weeks, she said. "But I can't commit to a time frame."
Faculty Senate vote
The college's Faculty Senate since early in the search has said it wanted a person who has experience in higher education as the school's next leader.
According to a resolution, the group voted it had no-confidence in the Board of Trustees because: the board undermined confidence in the integrity of the presidential search process, creating the impression that the results were predetermined; some members made statements to the Legislature in direct contradiction to the board's statement on academic freedom; and the board failed to inform the campus community of its positions on plans for a merger with the Medical University of South Carolina.
"We have a responsibility to speak up," said German professor Morgan Koerner.
The no-confidence vote was a hard thing to consider, said physics professor Jon Hakkila, "but the board is supposed to be on our side."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
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