Three candidates seeking the job of president at the College of Charleston took turns establishing their liberal-arts bona fides during campus visits this week.

During open forums in the Stern Center student union, faculty members pressed the candidates to explain how committed they were to the 233-year-old public college's traditional emphasis on academic subjects like literature, philosophy, history and mathematics.

Students, faculty and staff alike grilled the candidates on matters of diversity and inclusion. African-Americans only make up about 7 percent of the student body, despite the college serving a state that is 27 percent black.

The college briefly abandoned race-conscious affirmative action during the administration of previous president Glenn McConnell, and a recent "Top 10 Percent" initiative to recruit students from under-served counties has yielded little change in the school's demographics.

The college's board of trustees conducted closed-door interviews with the candidates this week. The board has not announced when it will vote to select the 23rd president. To read more about the candidates, including their curricula vitae, visit trustees.cofc.edu/presidential-search/finalists.

Rhonda Phillips

College of Charleston presidential candidate Rhonda Phillips talks with Devon Hanahan after answering questions from students and faculty in the Stern Center Ballroom Thursday, November 15, 20118. Brad Nettles/Staff

Rhonda Phillips

Current position: Honors college dean, Purdue University (enrollment 43,400)

Rhonda Phillips has spent much of her career working for large research institutions, from the University of Florida to the behemoth Arizona State University. She opened her appeal to the College of Charleston community Thursday afternoon by promising that she doesn't want to reinvent the college in the image of those larger schools.

"I do know there are opportunities to expand what we do as faculty and what we do as scholars with applied research," Phillips said.

Faculty and staff told Phillips that they have felt the pinch of salary compression and infrequent raises for years now as the state Legislature slashed its funding for higher education more than almost any other state in the nation.

One 2012 study by the American Council on Education predicted that South Carolina's public funding for higher education would reach zero by 2031 if it continued its steady decline.

Phillips suggested that the college could bring in more revenue through funded research programs, increased enrollment or increased private giving. She also said the college could pursue "non-endowment proposals," like asking private donors to give $5,000 a year to help an individual student pay for tuition.

"It doesn't look like anytime soon we're going to be able to rely on the public to fund higher education, so we're going to have to be much more creative and entrepreneurial about what we do to make it work," Phillips said.

On the question of diversity, Phillips pointed to her record as the inaugural dean of Purdue's Honors College, which boasts one of the most diverse faculties on campus. She also helped roll out a program that sends mentors into high schools and brings minority students onto campus during the summer before they graduate from high school. She said it has helped build interest and a strong base of minority students.

"At the very least, you want your college to reflect the region you serve, and that's the baseline," Phillips said. She added that she would seek more funding sources for existing minority recruitment and retention programs as well.

Andrew Hsu

College of Charleston presidential candidate Andrew Hsu answers questions from students and faculty in the Stern Center Ballroom Thursday, November 15, 20118. Brad Nettles/Staff

Andrew T. Hsu

Current position: Provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, University of Toledo (enrollment 23,000)

Andrew Hsu worked as an aerospace engineer before shifting into academia full time. Introducing himself to faculty and students Wednesday morning, he traced the arc of his life all the way back to his childhood in China during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

He told the crowd how, at age 11, he watched his parents being taken away to a re-education camp. At age 12, he joined them in a hard labor camp and then spent his teenage years harvesting wheat by hand.

Over the course of his 38 years in the United States, Hsu said he realized a lack of well-grounded liberal arts education played a role in the persecution he witnessed.

"I've always been passionate about education, but I'm particularly passionate about liberal arts education because I understand through firsthand experience, very painful personal experience, its importance to a democratic society," Hsu said.

At the University of Toledo, Hsu said he oversaw a reduction in the school's deficit as the school "improved our efficiency" in health insurance and other expenditures. At the College of Charleston, he said he would focus on building local partnerships and persuading alumni to donate to their alma mater.

Hsu pointed to the college's current alumni giving rate, which sits around 7 percent, and said he would like to bring it more in line with other public colleges where 18 to 20 percent of alumni donate.

On the topic of student diversity, Hsu wrote in an email to The Post and Courier, "I would not only support better recruitment efforts, but also explore the possibility of partnerships with public school districts to develop a highly qualified pipeline of minority students. In addition, it is crucial to provide minority students with the support they need to succeed at the College of Charleston, and focus on creating an inclusive culture on campus.”

Michael Benson at College of Charleston

Michael Benson, one of three finalists for the position of president at the College of Charleston, addresses students and faculty in the Stern Center on Wed. Nov. 14, 2018. Paul Bowers/Staff

Michael T. Benson

Current position: President, Eastern Kentucky University (enrollment 17,000)

Currently at the helm of a public university, Michael Benson brings the most executive experience of the three candidates. But when he spoke to students and faculty Wednesday afternoon, he started off by highlighting his dissertation on President Harry Truman's recognition of Israel and his current enrollment in a World War I history class.

He also made a reference to a more recent bit of history: President Donald Trump's Oct. 13 rally on the campus of Eastern Kentucky. After more than 100 of his faculty signed a letter opposing Trump's attacks on "the values of inquiry, learning, and free speech," Benson wrote back that he remained committed to "free speech, regardless of how offensive it might be."

At the rally, Trump promised to bring back coal industry jobs and said Democrats wanted to provide sanctuary to "murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all."

"I am a proponent of free speech, but not speech that falls in certain categories," Benson said Wednesday after several questions from students regarding hate speech.

Benson assured faculty members that he wants the College of Charleston to continue playing to its strengths as a liberal arts college. In a previous role as president of Southern Utah University Benson oversaw an improvement in the school's six-year graduation rate and convinced state leaders to officially designate it as a liberal arts and sciences university.

On the matter of diversity, Benson said he sees diversity as an issue that goes beyond "numbers" and would work to ensure that the college welcomes diverse students and "places them in a position to be successful."

"I would look holistically at what the College is doing that is working — or not working — and put resources into those efforts that will help us increase, specifically, our African-American student population," Benson said.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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