After freshman year

College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell crosses the downtown campus with college spokesman Mike Robertson and his chief of staff, Debbie Hammond.

Inside his office at Randolph Hall, Glenn McConnell’s painted portrait sits on the floor in the far right corner, propped against the wall. It’s a stoic, vague and slightly creepy resemblance of the College of Charleston’s president in his typical uniform: suit, tie, rim-less glasses, hair parted dramatically to the side. A gift from an elderly woman, he explained. Something she made in an art class. And no, it would not hang in his office.

“She valued it, so I value it,” he said in his homegrown Charleston drawl. “I just keep it there now. I got so many things in here I truly don’t have room for everything.”

A diplomatic response from a man who’s always chosen his words carefully, whether at the head of the state Senate or center of frenetic media attention. In his first year as president of the College of Charleston, the former lieutenant governor and president pro tempore of the state Senate faced more criticism and backlash than past presidents have during their entire time in office.

As news spread last spring that he’d been tapped as ex-president George Benson’s successor, the college’s pristine campus seemed on the brink of upheaval. Irate students and faculty opposed his vocal support of Confederate history. They accused the Board of Trustees of rigging the presidential search process. They swarmed the Cistern Yard below the windows of Randolph Hall with picket signs and protest chants, demanding his dismissal.

But by the time McConnell took office in July, tensions on campus had largely fizzled. Now, a year later, McConnell hopes he’s proved his detractors wrong, or at the very least, earned their optimistic skepticism.

“Anyone who sees what he’s accomplished in the last year, I think everyone will agree he’s the right person for the job,” said Board of Trustees chairman Greg Padgett. “He’s been moving the college forward since his first day in office.”

In the Legislature, McConnell built a reputation as a brilliant statesman and master compromiser whose deep knowledge of even the most esoteric Senate rules helped him rise to the body’s most powerful position. But outside the Senate chamber, he was best known as an unapologetic defender of Confederate heritage.

An ardent Civil War re-enactor and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he owned a Confederate souvenir shop for 20 years in North Charleston before closing it six years ago. In 2000, he was a key player in brokering a legislative deal to move the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome to the grounds, prompting an economic boycott of the state from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He wasn’t on the short list of candidates the college’s presidential search committee recommended to the Board of Trustees. But he was named a finalist for the job anyway, along with two candidates with backgrounds in academia. For many, the board’s decision to hire McConnell – in spite of opposition from faculty, students and the NAACP — was a reminder that South Carolina’s good ol’ boy system persisted well into the 21st century.

McConnell’s contentious appointment – and the student body’s fierce reaction to it – last March lit up national media. The New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, BuzzFeed, and a slew of left-leaning websites covered the controversy under unflattering headlines like “College Promoting Diversity Names Confederacy Lover as President” (The Root) and “Neo-Confederate Ties Haunt South Carolina Lt. Gov.’s New College Job” (Talking Points Memo). Hundreds of students walked out of class and protested in front of Randolph Hall. A petition urging the Board of Trustees to pass over McConnell amassed 1,200 signatures. The college’s faculty senate, who wanted a leader with higher education experience, unanimously passed a resolution of “no confidence” in the board’s presidential search process. One donor publicly resigned from the school’s Foundation Board.

Meanwhile, a 2010 photo of McConnell dressed in Confederate garb next to two African-American Gullah re-enactors recirculated – with great ridicule – around the Internet. For an incoming president at a college where black students have been historically underrepresented, this wasn’t a good look.

McConnell didn’t let the criticism bother him. He couldn’t. There wasn’t time.

Days after he arrived on campus, he launched his own investigation into the college’s former basketball coach Doug Wojcik, who had been accused of verbally abusing his players, and fired him a month later. His quick action and subsequent decision helped him win associate professor Alison Piepmeier’s tepid approval.

“He’s taken things like that very seriously,” said Piepmeier, the director of the college’s women’s and gender studies program, who described McConnell as “a white supremacist, neo-Confederate, homophobic sexist” in a City Paper column last summer. She remembers a conversation she had with another faculty member at the beginning of the school year when she realized McConnell was “doing better than we thought he would.”

“We sort of had these looks at each other,” she said. “What we were saying is, ‘Huh, we’re not sure what to expect. This maybe hasn’t been the nightmare we thought.’”

Then, in a dramatic effort to improve campus diversity, McConnell announced an ambitious plan in August to accept all students in five Lowcountry counties who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The first students to benefit from this pilot program are expected to arrive on campus in the fall of 2016, after the college gets the necessary academic supports in place, like tutors and peer advisors that can help increase retention.

“He’s interested in getting things done. He’s not interested in forming committees and talking about problems and hoping people forget it and think something’s getting done. He seems to me like a very results-oriented guy,” said English professor Joe Kelly, former codirector of the President’s Diversity Commission, who pitched the program idea to McConnell last year. “I’m convinced if anybody is going to be able to make these changes at the college, he’s the guy who can make them.”

Ultimately, the numbers will speak for themselves. Kelly is eyeing two under McConnell’s presidency: The amount money the college will raise and set aside for minority scholarships and the number of minority students — black students, in particular — who are accepted to and matriculate from the college in the next two years.

Since 2009, black student enrollment at the College of Charleston hasn’t budged past 6 percent — one of the lowest rates among public universities in the South Carolina. African Americans meanwhile make up 30 percent of the population in Charleston County and the state.

When McConnell was hired, his critics feared his Confederate affiliations would only hurt the college’s reputation and attempts to diversify its student body. Last year, Kelly told Reuters that recruiters would “have to do more work to sell the case that the college is not an inhospitable place for minority students” with McConnell at the helm.

Although his opinion of McConnell has “turned around,” Kelly said he’s still waiting for hard evidence of progress.

“I’ve learned in my long years in the college to not believe anything is going to happen until it happens and it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I really think he’s committed to increasing those numbers, (but) until those numbers increase, I’m cautious.”

Others hold less charitable views of McConnell’s performance so far. Rising junior Anjali Naik, who protested McConnell’s appointment last spring, wasn’t impressed when she with him last summer. Before the start of the school year, Naik and other student leaders were invited to have a meal with McConnell and members of the Board of Trustees at Virginia’s on King to discuss their concerns about campus diversity. “It was definitely a large step,” she said, but she didn’t feel like “he was actually listening.”

“I’d want him to actually respond to the students’ criticism. He’s never done that directly to any of our protests,” she said. “My ideas of him haven’t changed. He hasn’t really proved to me that he values diversity.”

Civil rights activist the Rev. Nelson Rivers, who previously warned the board would regret the “mistake of hiring Glenn McConnell,” said it’s “too early” to make any judgements about his presidency.

“We know that he just got there and unless he’s going to be very dynamic or creative — we haven’t seen evidence of either one — we just have to wait and see,” he said. “I, and many of the folks who stood against him would love for him to prove us wrong.”

On the Friday before Memorial Day, McConnell is ebullient, almost giddy, as he flaunts his collection of medals and memorabilia from his time as a C of C student almost 50 years ago and his decades-long career in state politics. On one shelf sits a model of a Boeing airplane next to a black and white photo of a young John Drummond in military regalia, his Democratic predecessor in the Senate’s president pro tempore seat. On an end table below a sunlit window, he displays his two most prestigious awards from the College of Charleston: the Founder’s Medal, the college’s highest honor, which he received in 1992, and Bingham Oratorical Medal, given to the best student rhetorician in a speech contest. In 1969, he was the medal’s last recipient. He talked about the Soviet’s Brezhnev Doctrine. And tucked under a table lamp is a bookmark-sized photo of a young McConnell in dark blazer, smiling and griping the railing along the front of Randolph Hall.

He’s brought his hands-on approach from the statehouse to the college. He’s attended Student Government Meetings. He made a habit of eating lunch at Liberty St. Fresh Food Company, the college dining hall around the corner, where he invited students to sit down with him.

“This College of Charleston gave me the opportunity to become president pro tempore of the Senate. It taught me how to think, how to succeed,” he said. “I owe everything to the college for launching me on my life... I want them to have what I had.”

In mid-May, he sat through his first College of Charleston commencement as president, where he shook hands with more than 2,000 graduates in the Cistern Yard.

His long-time chief of staff Debbie Hammond pulls out a photo of McConnell from the one of the ceremonies, sitting next to the commencement speaker and C of C alum Steve Swanson.

“You see that expression on his face? That is a happy man,” she said. “I’ve worked for him for 14 years. That’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him... That captures how he feels about his first year.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.