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College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell cites health, age as reasons he's leaving this summer

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College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell plans to retire this summer. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell will retire this summer, less than four years after his controversial ascent to the job.

McConnell, 70, who became the college's 22nd president in July 2014, said he notified the college's Board of Trustees on Friday of his plans to retire. 

In a message to campus on Monday, he said his age and health played a significant role in his decision.

“Over the past two months, I have taken a hard look at the challenges ahead as well as my physical abilities and energy long term to do this job and to meet other responsibilities I have at the same level as in the past," McConnell said.

Chairman David Hay said the board will organize a search process for McConnell's successor and announce its plans within the next few days. The board has scheduled a special meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday to talk in closed session about personnel.

When he became president of the college in 2014, the board approved a $188,000 salary that was supplemented by $112,000 from the C of C Foundation Board, bringing his total annual pay to $300,000. The S.C. Department of Administration currently lists his state compensation at about $205,000.

Some critics speculated McConnell had taken the job to boost his benefits under the state retirement system, which calculates payments based on an employee's three highest-paid consecutive years of service. But college spokesman Mike Robertson said McConnell began collecting retirement under the General Assembly retirement plan after 30 years of service in January 2011, making him ineligible for higher retirement benefit rates as president.

McConnell has kept a low profile since arriving at the college. He did not respond to interview requests from The Post and Courier on the day the board selected him as president, and he declined to give interviews Monday, when he announced he would be leaving.

A controversial choice

McConnell, of Charleston, graduated from the college in 1969, got a law degree and became a longtime state lawmaker who rose to become the Senate president pro tempore, a post many consider the most powerful in state government. Still, he arrived at the college under a cloud of controversy in 2014.

In hiring McConnell, the Board of Trustees rejected the recommended candidates of a presidential search committee. Although McConnell had no prior experience working in higher education, proponents said he would bring his political connections and fundraising prowess to the college's service.

Outside the General Assembly, McConnell 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 in 2009. 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 the NAACP.

When McConnell was tapped to succeed George Benson as president of the college in March 2014, the Faculty Senate and the Student Government Association passed a vote of no confidence in the board, with some saying that politics had tainted the selection process. Students staged walkouts and protests.

McConnell's arrival had a financial impact, too, as donors called the fundraising Foundation Board with questions about the hiring process. Bill Asbill, a member of the Foundation Board at the time, announced he was resigning from the board and stopping donations to the college.

“I resigned because the selection process really did not ... take into account the views of the Foundation Board,” Asbill said when reached by email this month. “It had nothing to do with Glenn.”

The foundation repeatedly denied requests to reveal how many donations it had lost at the time. Subsequent financial reports show that it did take a hit in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, when annual contributions dropped from $13.1 million to $9.7 million.

Fundraising has been mixed since then, peaking at $13.6 million in 2016 before dropping to $8.9 million last year.

New initiatives

As president, McConnell helped lead the college's "Boundless" fundraising campaign, which began during Benson's administration in 2009 and raised more than $138 million to support scholarships and academic programs. Like most public colleges and universities in the state, the college has also passed tuition increases to help balance its budget amid dwindling state support.

McConnell took a hard-line stance on fraternities and sororities in the fall of 2016, temporarily banning alcohol from all Greek activities and events following reports of students requiring medical transports due to extreme intoxication and disruptive off-campus parties, including one where a former student alleges she was drugged and sexually assaulted

"I would say he showed strong leadership in trying to bring the college back to its core values," said Jeff Schilz, a former Board of Trustees member and current executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. "I think the way that he handled some situations with fraternities and sororities on campus demonstrated that."

Around the same time, the college launched its Collegiate Recovery Program, the first initiative of its kind in the state, providing support and drug- and alcohol-free environments for students in recovery from addiction. Schilz said McConnell was "instrumental" in starting that program.

Contrary to the fears of his early detractors, McConnell sought to increase minority student enrollment at a college that has a reputation of catering to a white, middle-class student body. In 2015, the college launched the “Top 10 Percent” program, which offers automatic admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes in seven Lowcountry counties.

The program was designed to attract underrepresented minority students, particularly those from poor, rural areas, where students are less likely to go to college. The program brought in 76 students in fall 2016, including 31 students of color. It brought 64 students in fall 2017, including 18 students of color.

Joe Kelly, a professor at the college since 1992 and former co-director of the President's Diversity Commission, was initially worried that McConnell's appointment would stymie efforts to recruit African-American students. He said he was disturbed by McConnell’s public passion for Confederate history, especially his participation eight years ago in the so-called “Secession Ball” celebrating the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s declaration to secede from the Union.

“I thought he was the worst person to pick if you wanted to conduct a university that serves the entire population of the state and which has historically under-served the African-American population of the state,” Kelly said. “But that was my initial (thought), before he came on board. I would count myself among those whose minds he changed about that.”

Kelly, who pitched the Top 10 Percent program idea to McConnell back in 2014, wound up impressed by McConnell's "genuine interest" in attracting more students of color to campus after several meetings with him.

“He seemed to me a can-do kind of guy someone who would pay more than lip service to it, somebody who could make some changes,” Kelly said. “My impression was that he really got it about diversity on campus and how the real lack of African-American undergraduates was a significant problem for a serious university.”

Undergraduate minority enrollment has slowly inched upward during McConnell's tenure, though black student enrollment appears to have plateaued at about 8 percent over the past three years. Nearly 20 percent of C of C undergrads are racial and ethnic minorities, up from 17 percent in 2014. The percentage of black first-time freshmen dipped between 2016 and 2017, from to 8.6 to 6.8 percent.

McConnell’s tenure also saw bumps on the sports front.

Shortly after he arrived, McConnell ordered a second investigation of embattled basketball coach Doug Wojcik based on new allegations of a physical confrontation with a player and verbal abuse of athletic department staff.

Last year, baseball coach Matt Heath was fired after two seasons and an investigation into allegations of abusive behavior toward players.

Heath denied any wrongdoing. The search for his replacement, Chad Holbrook, hit a hiccup after he was offered the job due to McConnell’s concerns over an avalanche of support of former players for another candidate.

Meeting the critics 

Reviews of McConnell's three and a half years in office have been mixed. Some African-American student leaders expressed frustration with the college's investigation of a racially insensitive Halloween costume in 2017 and said they had difficulty arranging a meeting with the president.

Others have complained about his slow response to events like a planned Confederate "flagging" of the college in the fall of 2017. McConnell did release a statement saying he denounced the event "wholeheartedly," but it came about a day after the Department of History called on him to speak up.

Some critics have been won over by McConnell, whom they describe as polite and personable.

"He has taken a considered approach that might not have been swift enough for some, but I attribute that to his legal training, not to anything about his character," said Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies Kelly Shaver, who joined the Faculty Senate's vote of no confidence in the presidential selection process in 2014.

Denis William Keyes, an education professor at the college, said he also had serious concerns about the selection process. Keyes now serves as chairman of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the President, and he said he has seen firsthand that McConnell works long hours and takes the job seriously.

"He’s proven himself to be a tireless worker for the good of the college," Keyes said. "He’s not in it for his aggrandizement."