GLENN McCONNELL, still not that far removed from being arguably the most powerful person in state government, has dropped by to assure me that he is not building a new empire for himself at the College of Charleston.
The old school’s new president says that he has maneuvered to turn the college into a research university not so it can compete with USC or Clemson but so it won’t be absorbed into MUSC, that other research university we already have in the holy city, as some lawmakers were itching to make happen. “This,” he says of the decision this fall by the Commission on Higher Education to give his school the research-university designation, “ends the merger talk.”
He only wants to offer a handful of doctoral degrees that Charleston business leaders say they need — supply-chain logistics, information management and computer science — and one of the many quirks of S.C. law is that doctoral degrees can be offered only at schools with the grandiose nomenclature “research university.” (Another quirk, of which he is quite proud: The University of Charleston, South Carolina, as his graduate university is designated in state law, is a component of the College of Charleston, not the other way around.)
One thing the college’s new research university will not offer, he assures me, is law degrees.
Which is to say that he has no intention of bailing out the redundant Charleston School of Law, which private investors built and couldn’t afford to run and a lot of people would love to see rescued by the state now that it seems about to be given in shotgun marriage to the for-profit Infilaw System.
“The University of Charleston South Carolina doesn’t have anything to do with the law school,” Mr. McConnell says. “The only way it’s gonna happen is if the Legislature forces it on us — and gives us the money. It’s not something we want. The Board of Trustees doesn’t want it. Their president doesn’t want it. It doesn’t make sense.”
And it’s all interesting, and he seems quite sincere and sounds pretty convincing. But I am having a hard time focusing on the research university brouhaha when every other sentence makes me think: Gracious, it didn’t take long for the first genuine budget hawk I ever met — the quirky leader of the old Senate renegades, who was a hawk back before everybody else in the Legislature was one too — to go native.
We’ve barely said our hellos before he’s quoting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and waxing eloquent on the value of the “holistic approach” of a liberal-arts education (“We’re one of the few universities where to get a degree, you’ve got to get two years of foreign language”) and taking note of the Legislature’s steeply declining support of colleges and universities and propounding on his plan to devote 50 percent of the money in his first comprehensive-giving campaign to scholarships.
“Scholarships are transformational for people’s lives,” he says, before launching into a monologue on his negotiations with business leaders to provide internships and mentorships and help with a career center that he hopes will help increase the school’s diversity.
He returns to his point about using whatever tactics it takes to protect the undergraduate program.
“We’re not going to rob the undergraduate program to build some big research university for which we’re not sure the students are there,” he says. “The College of Charleston is remaining for itself a comprehensive teaching college. But if we don’t remain relevant, we will be forced into a relationship we don’t want to be in, and we’re going to be forced to change.”
And then he’s back on the scholarships, but this time he brings the hawk with him. He talks about driving the maintenance crew crazy by demanding that they fix little problems before they become big, expensive problems, and about encountering the excesses that had just been taken for granted.
“I get there, and they had some chocolates that were customized” with the school’s name on them, he tells me, in that incredulous tone that he used to reserve for excesses at the Budget and Control Board. “I said, 'You want chocolates? Go buy yourself a bag of Hershey's.'”
And I laugh, because it’s clear that Mr. McConnell hasn’t forgotten his roots after all. And as I’m vacillating between applauding his attention to the ridiculous sort of waste that gives government in general and higher education in particular a really bad name, and rolling my eyes over his peevishness, he demonstrates that what for so many years seemed like a political end in itself has found clear purpose in his new passion.
“For every dollar I see wasted, that’s a dollar that could have gone into a student,” he says. “I’m trying to create a culture that money is precious, and we should be about the student experience.”
Not every college president has the luxury Mr. McConnell does, with fewer than 12,000 students, to engage in such intensive hands-on management, and I suspect that over time he will find that more difficult. But every president would do well to create that sort of culture among the faculty and staff. It likely would find a receptive audience among students and parents.
And who knows? It might even make those hawks that have become ubiquitous at the State House a little more willing to treat higher education like the smart investment for our state that Mr. McConnell has come to realize it is.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached
or at (803) 771-8571.