Bolton: The two faces of Glenn McConnell

Associate EditorApril 10, 2014 

— IMAGES ARE powerful, and it’s hard not to wonder which of the prevailing depictions of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell — powerful former legislator or lover of all things Confederate — will most influence people’s perception of the College of Charleston as he prepares to become the school’s next president.

I can only assume that the college’s board of trustees considered the possible backlash and determined that whatever criticism the college draws over the hiring, whatever damage it sustains to its image, whatever the number students and faculty missed out on or lost, whatever level of financial or other support withheld, the long-term benefits will prove worth it.

Board members had to know what was coming. Mr. McConnell’s story is well known — the good and the baggage.

While the record he amassed as a powerful legislator impresses many, his strong embrace of an era that marked some of the most shameful days in South Carolina’s history — exhibited in his passion for the preservation of the H.L. Hunley and the flying of the Confederate flag as well as Civil War reenactments — makes black people and many whites alike bristle.

Mr. McConnell, who helped manage a family-owned Civil War and historical memorabilia business, once was criticized for taking a photo at an event called “A Southern Experience” in which he was dressed in a Confederate uniform flanked by two African-Americans some interpreted as being dressed as slaves.

Some people argue that his personal druthers have nothing to do with his ability to lead. And certainly he has a right to do as he pleases. But as one chosen to help shape young minds and futures, solicit donors and be a recruiter and face of the school, it’s legitimate to ask whether his image serves as a draw or a turn off. Will his history have any effect on the school’s image and its ability to recruit students, especially African-Americans, and donors?

How can you not ask such questions in a state that is nearly a third African-American, has had a rocky racial history and clings to an uneasy compromise that landed the Confederate flag in an in-your-face position on the State House grounds. It’s only a matter of time before the simmering debate over the flag flares up again. If it’s during Mr. McConnell’s tenure as president of the College of Charleston, will he emerge from the port city to vigorously defend the flag’s honor?

I wonder if trustees had discussions among themselves or with Mr. McConnell about whether his role in the Confederate flag debate and his efforts to draw millions in public dollars to preserve the Hunley and his participation in Civil War reenactments would reflect negatively on the college.

We’re in an era in which we warn college students and young adults to be careful about how they present themselves via social media as well as the type of people they associate with and extracurricular activities they participate in. Controversial and offensive comments or actions — and sometimes even seemingly benign actions — can disqualify you from a job no matter how qualified, able or skilled you might be. Those in public positions are held to an even higher standard; they’re routinely judged by the things they do and the company they keep.

To whatever degree College of Charleston trustees considered such things, they obviously determined that the positives Mr. McConnell brings to the table outweigh any baggage that could sully the school’s image.

For sure, Mr. McConnell brings many positives. No one questions his intellect or his ability to lead. He boasts years of solid service — some might venture to say sterling — as a legislator, much of it as a leader of the Senate and one of the most influential men in S.C. government. Long lauded for his grasp of the arcane rules and workings of the Senate, he was and remains highly respected by his legislative peers.

Some considered it unfortunate and even unfair that state succession rules led to him relinquishing his Senate seat — and the powerful position of Senate president pro tem, along with it — to accept the largely symbolic lieutenant governor’s slot after Ken Ard resigned and pleaded guilty to ethics violations. No doubt, that sacrifice gained him even more respect.

Frankly, his rapport with lawmakers and the reputation he built as a legislator are among the biggest reasons he was chosen as the College of Charleston’s next president. Who knows what matter of largesse he might be able to bring to the college or what perils he might be able to prevent from befalling it, given his relationship with lawmakers? Even if the state doesn’t need another research university, the College of Charleston has a shot at becoming one on some scale with Mr. McConnell lobbying the Legislature.

But the thing that speaks most highly of Mr. McConnell might well be his service in the power-deficient position of lieutenant governor. While the office serves no real purpose unless the governor dies and a successor is needed, it does oversee the Office on Aging. Mr. McConnell has done a yeoman-like job as an administrator and advocate for that office. He put his smarts and know-how toward delivering real services to real people. In the process, the public saw him in a very different light. Serving over this human services area helped to demystify Glenn McConnell and make him, well, more human.

And it suggests he has the ability to adapt and grow into a job. Could he do the same as he takes on a tougher job as a college president? A job he enters in the face of protests from regular citizens and the NAACP and votes of no-confidence in the board by the Faculty Senate and Student Government Association?

Let’s be clear. There are many who support the hiring of Glenn McConnell, including some African-Americans.

I don’t doubt for a minute that he could lead a college, even though I’m convinced he wouldn’t have had as great an opportunity if not for his political connections and influence at the State House.

As for his lack of an academic background, yes, that’s a challenge. But others have led colleges, including the College of Charleston, without an academic background. The example most cited is Alex Sanders, who was a big success at the College of Charleston. Of course, he was a much different personality, and more importantly, he didn’t have this kind of baggage.

Mr. McConnell has his work cut out for him. His every move will be monitored closely and his every word heavily scrutinized.

Indeed, what ordinarily would be a time of celebration, the impending arrival of a new president, is a season of suspicion. But it hardly comes as a surprise.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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