When Glenn McConnell was watching "America's Got Talent" Tuesday night, his mind began to wander to other things - mainly his vision for the College of Charleston and how it can be improved.
"It's a life-launching experience," McConnell said of receiving a degree from the college. "That's what's so great about the College of Charleston with our liberal arts core. We teach people how to think and give them an opportunity to succeed in life. The college gave me that opportunity, and I'm coming home to help others have the same thing I did."
McConnell officially took the helm as the college's president on Tuesday. On Wednesday, evidence of his arrival was everywhere. Boxes lined the walls along with bubble-wrapped frames of art, including a square of carpet from the Statehouse and college memorabilia.
One thing that was on the wall was McConnell's diploma from the College of Charleston, where he graduated in 1969. He is only the second alumnus in the school's history to return as president. The first was Nathaniel Bowen, class of 1794, who served as president from 1823-24 and again from 1827-28.
"I left with this diploma and I return now as the president of the college with my diploma, and there it is on the walls of the college," he said, pointing. "That's exciting."
But McConnell's path to the presidency has been anything but smooth. Students protested his hiring. The college's Faculty Senate in April voted unanimously that it had no confidence in the Board of Trustees, in part because of the board's decision to hire McConnell.
Among the concerns raised by many students, faculty, staff and community members are that McConnell doesn't have any academic experience, and that 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. Some also have questioned whether the longtime senator and former lieutenant governor was hired based on politics rather than being the most qualified candidate.
"The metaphor on campus is 'It's time to turn the page,' " said College of Charleston student Matt Rabon, who was instrumental in organizing student protests against McConnell's hiring. "But we need to read the page before we turn it. I think we still have all these questions and concerns about the process about the presidential search and ultimately Mr. McConnell's selection that haven't been answered or addressed."
The faculty is willing to give McConnell a chance, said Lynn Cherry, former speaker of the faculty for the Faculty Senate.
"I think the best way to describe the general sentiment at this point is that there are many faculty who are hoping very much that President McConnell will seek input from the faculty, will talk with faculty, and will listen to what concerns faculty have about a variety of issues," Cherry said. "I think most faculty are looking at it and saying, 'OK, how can we try to move forward?' "
Greg Padgett, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees, feels the best path to healing the campus is through McConnell proving himself by his actions.
"I can say the college today is a strong vibrant institution of higher learning," he said. "I know through President McConnell's leadership he's going to provide what's necessary for the college to continue to thrive. By execution of doing a great job, over time he'll earn support."
The new college president doesn't want to focus on the debates of his qualifications or the hiring process. He wants to move the college forward with a policy of inclusion by reaching out to students and faculty. He plans to be a "hands-on president," and wants to be visible and accessible.
"It's the present and the future that count now," he said. "We have to take count of where we are now, where we want to go and how do we together get there."
To prep for his new role, McConnell has spent the past three months reading reports and doing research.
He's got boxes in his office of information about all aspects of the college. One box contains binders organized by subject and another has a file folder labeled "To Read." On his second day on the job, McConnell already has a lot of ideas about how to improve the college.
He's eyeing facility improvements, including the college's baseball stadium at Patriots Point and the Simons Center for the Arts, both of which he's already toured.
He wants to investigate how to better utilize the college's main campus in downtown Charleston by evaluating whether some nonessential services can be moved to other locations to open up buildings for classroom space. He also wants to take a look at how to better use the college's North Charleston campus.
Getting more state funding for higher education is where McConnell feels his experience as a legislator could be beneficial because he understands how to appeal to lawmakers. He said that in the face of a steep decline in state funding, colleges across the state have had no choice but to raise tuition, but he would like to see that trend reverse.
"I plan to be vocal about the need for the state to re-engage in the support of higher education," he said. "I think a model that depends on higher and higher and higher tuition is not a sustainable model."
He also hopes to use his legislative ties to see a law passed that will allow the college to begin discussions to develop the University of Charleston and advance degree offerings. But he doesn't want to see legislation that mandates how the university concept should unfold. He also doesn't want to stray from the college's primary mission as a liberal arts school.
Diversity and freedom
Although some have said McConnell's hobby as a Civil War re-enactor could impact minority enrollment, he doesn't think so.
"Re-enacting is nothing but living history," McConnell said. "History doesn't keep people away, it gives them an opportunity to visit other times and to not repeat the mistakes of the past."
Diversity and enrollment of minority students has been an ongoing issue at the college which some has said is too low. Overall, minority students make up 18 percent of the college's student body while black students make up about 6 percent.
McConnell wants to engage minority alumni, particularly black alumni, to share their experiences at the college with prospective students. He also wants to engage guidance counselors across the state as well as out of state to recruit minority students.
McConnell also doesn't think his ties to the Legislature will hurt academic freedom at the college. Academic freedom became a contentious issue last spring when some state legislators targeted funding for the college's summer reading program over the selection of the book "Fun Home" because of it's depiction of homosexuality.
To help avoid controversies in the future, McConnell hopes to lay out a process for the selection of academic materials that will help the college explain to outside voices how those choices were made.
"We just need to be well-versed to explain in the hopes (the Legislature) will have a charity of understanding that we have a difference of opinion," he said. "That's what freedom is about. We're entitled to have our opinion, and we're entitled to make decisions."
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546