Republican Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell of Charleston said today he will not seek another term as the state’s second in command, and instead will try to become the next College of Charleston president.
McConnell’s announcement comes at a time when politicians leading colleges
and universities is becoming a trend, and as South Carolina’s political stripes are changing toward a more radical brand of conservatism. Once described by CNN as “an avatar of good ol’ boy Republicanism,” McConnell has held elected office for more than 30 years, rising to become perhaps the state’s most powerful politician as president pro tem of the Senate.
But that abruptly changed two years ago.
“In January of 2012, I began a new year as President Pro Tempore of the South Carolina Senate — a position I had held for over a decade. And about this time two years ago, I was preparing for the new Session of the General Assembly,” McConnell said today. “But the hand of Providence forced me to make a difficult decision. As we all know, the incumbent lieutenant governor resigned on the 12th of March two years ago. At that time, I had absolutely no desire to be lieutenant governor. But I had taken an oath to stand ready to replace the lieutenant governor if necessary. And I was honor-bound to fulfill that oath. So, I became South Carolina’s 89th lieutenant governor.”
When the presidency job opened up at his alma matter McConnell indicated that the hand of Providence had once again swept down and wiggled its fingers in his path. When he attended CofC, McConnell was student body president. Now there is a dorm named after him. (CofC president George Benson announced last summer he will step down in June 2014.)
McConnell has decided it wouldn’t be honorable to offer himself up as a candidate for lieutenant governor and also president of the college.
“The College of Charleston has always been close to my heart, and I believe I have the background and qualifications the college needs at this unique moment in her history,” he said, adding that he feels he can “be of service to her during a time of tremendous challenges as well as exciting opportunities.”
McConnell’s name has dominated talk about who might succeed Benson. That’s rankled some faculty members. The college has hired an independent national search firm to help find a new president and has created a committee to vet applicants that is separate from the 20-member board of trustees that will eventually choose a president. But Todd Grantham, a department chair who teaches philosophy at the college, has said there is some worry about an open and honest national search being compromised by local politics. And the college’s faculty senate had earlier passed a unanimous resolution asking that the board look for a president with an academic background.
Local lawmakers in both parties, however, have been squarely in McConnell’s corner on his presidency bid. And the Confederate re-enactor has been defended by a Post & Courier columnist
against any accusation that he might hamper diversity at a public institution with an already low number of minority students.
In August, former South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford said she was eyeing the presidency, but she’s since been quiet about it. She wasn’t immediately available for comment on the day McConnelll announced his formal intention to seek it.
The news will have lasting implications at the State House where McConnell has been something of a legislative institution, and, of course, on the race for who will be the next lieutenant governor. The holder of the state’s part time, largely ceremonial position is often described as being a heartbeat away from governor.
Already, retired Charleston businessman Pat McKinney
, an ally of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, has announced a bid and is building support among the limited government movement supportive of Haley’s agenda.
On the Democratic side, Bamberg County Rep. Bakari Sellers
, 29, is running.
“McConnell said that he made a decision to drop politics. Unfortunately, in reality, it seems that the politicos who have taken over the Republican Party have dropped Glenn McConnell in favor of a more ultra fringe tea party candidate,” Sellers said in response to the recent news. “Moderate Republicans continue to be exiled from their party by far right tea party leaders who are out of touch with the issues facing real South Carolinians. I am running for lieutenant governor to help the hard-working families of our state and to put an end to political extremism that has created gridlock at the State House.”
McKinney declined to respond to Sellers’ remarks, but said he congratulates McConnell on his service to the state and wishes him luck on his bid for the college presidency.
Politicians became presidents of two high-profile higher-ed institutions last year.
Indiana’s ex-GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels became the president of Purdue, and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano now heads California’s university system. As the news website Politico reported
, politicians can be adept at dealing with budgets, fundraising, using soft money to advance goals, and advocating for state or federal money. Meanwhile, “one in five college presidents in 2011 was working outside higher education before assuming the post, up from 13 percent in 2006, according to a survey from the American Council on Education,” Politico reported. “Only a tiny sliver, 2 percent, came from elected or appointed office.”