COLUMBIA, SC — Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, one of the most powerful and controversial state politicians in a generation, was named president at his alma mater, the College of Charleston, on Saturday.
Trustees chose McConnell, 66, to succeed George Benson, who is leaving at the end of the June after leading the state’s third-largest college for seven years.
He will arrive on campus with opposition from some faculty, students and community leaders opposed to his support of Confederate Civil War causes and his lack of academic experience.
McConnell’s supporters see his clout after three decades in the State House helping the College of Charleston become the South Carolina’s third major research university, which could bring more money to the school and aid economic development in the region.
“I am confident we can create a transformational future for the College of Charleston that will be our generation’s greatest legacy not only to the students now assembled on this historic campus but also for generations yet to come,” McConnell wrote in his letter to the presidential search committee.
McConnell’s new job could lead to a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office for seven months. Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, a Richland Republican who is next in line, has said he would not become lieutenant governor.
If McConnell starts at the school on July 1, the office would remain open until the winner from this year’s election takes the oath in January. The S.C. lieutenant governor’s office has been vacant for long stretches – from five months to two years – six times since 1879, according to state records.
McConnell, a Charleston Republican who gave up a chance to run for lieutenant governor to concentrate on his efforts to lead the school, stands to get a huge raise.
He earns $46,545 a year in the state’s No. 2 job. Benson makes nearly $380,000 in annual state salary and supplemental pay from the college’s foundation. A salary for McConnell was not announced Saturday.
The other College of Charleston presidential finalists were retired Harvard University professor Jody Encarnation, a College of Charleston alum who sits on the school’s foundation board, and former University of Southern Mississippi president Martha Saunders.
Encarnation, a business consultant who has worked with state commerce department leaders since retiring from Harvard, was considered McConnell’s main rival for the job. Saunders, the one finalist to have led a college, was a favorite among faculty. The school received more than 100 applications.
Fans and protests
McConnell’s candidacy drew some opposition quickly.
Protests came from Charleston-area NAACP leaders this month and students while trustees met last week. They fear African-American enrollment will suffer under the leadership of McConnell, a Confederate Civil War re-enactor who backed the Confederate battle flag staying on the State House grounds.
Protestors circulated a photo of McConnell dressed in a Confederate Army uniform with a pair of Gullah re-enactors.
The faculty, fearing the school would lose its 244-year identity as liberal arts school under an economic-development mandate, passed a resolution asking for a president with a university background.
Fellow state legislators and some business leaders, however, have backed McConnell for the job.
His supporters cite the successful tenure of another president who did not have an extensive academic background – Alex Sanders, a former lawmaker and chief justice of the S.C. Court of Appeals who led the school from 1992-2001.
McConnell lists “reenacting Civil War cannoneering” as a hobby on his personal website. He has said his stance on keeping the flag on the State House grounds was part of the compromise for taking it off the dome.
He told the search committee he would “foster more diversity” on campus and shared supportive comments about him from African American lawmakers.
McConnell’s appointment will not become an embarrassment for Charleston while it gains a worldwide reputation as top tourist destination, the city’s longtime mayor said.
“I don’t think that’s a fair concern that anyone should have,” Mayor Joe Riley said during a visit to the State House last week. “If he’s the president of the college, his focus will be making the College of Charleston better.”
In his letter to the presidential search committee, McConnell wrote that he has fundraising and economic development experience.
“While I do not have a teaching background, I have over the course of my life gained varied experiences that help qualify me for this challenge,” he wrote.
He cited efforts to raise money to recover and restore the H. L. Hunley Confederate submarine and for the African-American history monument at the State House. McConnell mentioned his role in helping lure Boeing to build its first jet manufacturing plant outside the Seattle area in North Charleston.
McConnell will come to the College of Charleston president’s office with the General Assembly aiming attention on the campus.
Bills in the House and Senate would merge the college with the nearby Medical University of South Carolina. The House voted to remove $52,000 from the school’s budget next year as punishment for assigning a gay-themed book for a freshman reading program.
McConnell has said he does not expect the merger bill to pass this year. But he would work to build the school into a full-fledged research university without MUSC by working to have legislation introduced that would allow the College of Charleston to offer doctoral degrees.
The doctoral degrees along with research programs he wants to start, such as with logistics with Port of Charleston or programs tied to work at Boeing, would fall under the University of Charleston. The core of the 244-year-old liberal arts school will remain under the name College of Charleston.
McConnell, who has a dorm named after him on campus, has said he would spend his first months working with faculty, trustees and alumni to build consensus for his vision, which includes keep the college’s liberal arts mission.
“You do that by strengthening it, and to strengthen it, what you do is build in these other areas where there’s a perceived need,” he told The State this month. “The college has to be relevant to this business community and to the demands of today.”
Those additions would make College of Charleston a more attractive partner for MUSC, a medical-focused research school, McConnell said.
Some lawmakers have said McConnell’s plan that might be a tough sell in the State House, as the city of Charleston would have two smaller research schools for a time. The University of South Carolina and Clemson University are the state’s major research schools.
“The strengths I bring to this quest for excellence at the college are my long-standing relationships with political, educational, business and community leaders as well as my understanding of how policy is developed, where the roadblocks are positioned, where resources exist and how real change can be achieved,” McConnell wrote to the search committee.
A Charleston man
McConnell is a Charleston native taking over the main university in his hometown.
At the College of Charleston, he was student body president before graduating in 1969 with a degree in political science.
He also graduated from the USC School of Law and worked for the Neighborhood Legal Assistance Program and the Charleston Naval Shipyard before going into private practice. He also helped manage a family-owned, Civil War and historical memorabilia business, CSA Galleries.
McConnell was first elected as state senator in 1981. He became Senate president pro tempore, the chamber leader who has a hand in when legislation hits the floor, in 2001. He also headed the powerful Senate judiciary committee.
McConnell surprised many when he became lieutenant governor in 2012 after Ken Ard resigned amid ethics charges.
He could have declined like other senate president pro tempore in the past, but he said he took the oath for the less influential office out of a sense of duty to the state. The lieutenant governor is a part-time job that oversees the Office of Aging.
A known rules maven, McConnell still wielded some authority in the State House as lieutenant governor by presiding over the senate as lieutenant governor.
He ruled in favor of an objection to an amendment last week that killed major Republican-led efforts to curb enacting the federal Affordable Care Act this year. McConnell’s sense of fairness has won applause from both sides of the political aisle – an attribute that won him support for the College of Charleston job.
“He wasn’t picking winners,” state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said after bill died last week. “He has been calling like he saw it.”
Reach Shain at (803) 771-8619.