Once one of the most powerful politicians in South Carolina, Glenn McConnell is at a crossroad in his life.
Right now there are two paths in front of the Charleston Republican and current lieutenant governor. One of them could lead to the top job at the College of Charleston, McConnell’s alma mater where a building is named after him.
“I’m just going to have to decide where my calling is,” McConnell told The State newspaper in Columbia this week, stirring a reaction among the college’s faculty, students, and staff. He said he’ll take the Thanksgiving holiday to decide whether to run to keep his current job in 2014 or focus on trying to become CofC’s next president.
That McConnell’s name is dominating news about the position before the college has formally placed an ad for it has been a cause for concern among faculty, says Todd Grantham, a department chair who teaches philosophy at the college. There’s worry, he says, about an open and honest national search being compromised by local politics.
“I do get concerned when I hear somebody like Glenn McConnell basically speaking through the newspaper, saying if you guys want me you better take me now,” he says. “If the decision is made that a local politician is the best fit that’s OK, but we need a national search.”
There is a formal process in place for finding the right leader for the college, and it began last month, says Greg Padgett, chairman of the school’s board of trustees. The college will place an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Nov. 29 and will accept applications through Jan. 14. The college hired a national search firm to help and set up a 13-member search committee made up of students, alumni, faculty, board of trustee members, and others. They solicited input from the public earlier this month. Padgett has indicated that no one could walk into the presidency just because they wanted it, and anyone who thought he or she might be a lock for the position would be wrong.
The presidency job will be open next year when George Benson steps down. When he announced his plans this summer to release the presidential reins and teach at the business school, some high-profile names quickly popped up on the radar. Former S.C. First Lady Jenny Sanford said she was interested in the post, telling the City Paper in August that she felt like a long shot but would welcome the opportunity as higher education in America is at a crossroad.
But Sanford has been quiet about it since then. McConnell, on the other hand, certainly has not. This week he laid out his vision for the school should he become president, saying that he’d like to see it become a research university that collaborates with the state’s other research schools. That specifically means the Medical University of South Carolina, which is on the Charleston harbor and has been in talks about a possible merger with CofC. McConnell also weighed in on whether the troubled Charleston Law School might one day be folded into CofC, saying it could be a “nice fit.”
The college’s 20 board members will eventually pick the next president after a list of names are narrowed down, likely sometime in March, says CofC spokesman Mike Robertson.
One board of trustee member says he’s taken a confidentiality pledge when it comes to his thoughts about potential presidents while the search is in process, and said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to talk about it.
“You know the process [of how the president will be chosen],” the trustee, Dan Ravenel, said. “The only question you’ve got is who’s going to win, and I can’t tell you that.”
Chairman Padgett confirmed there are confidentiality agreements about certain aspects of the selection process.
“We’re looking for candidates that are working outside academia and in higher education, a broad range,” he said. “And those candidates need to be assured that there’s a process in place for confidentiality.”
The names of political figures floating around throughout the process had rankled some faculty members from the start. In fact, the school’s Faculty Senate passed a unanimous resolution in the fall asking the Board of Trustees to conduct a national search and hire someone with experience in higher education. For his part, Grantham, who drew up the resolution, says he’d like to see a president who could pick a direction for the college and be able to marshal faculty support behind it, whatever that direction is.
A recent staff editorial in the student publication, The Cistern Yard, appeared rather agnostic about the background of the school’s next president, but said whoever it is must be someone who could “bring a largely apathetic campus into a dynamic future.”
One source close to the board says it seems there’s a general consensus forming that the next president doesn’t have to be from academia. However, some on the board might be worried about a big public fight with the faculty over that, and also the perception that a political figure like McConnell could step into the position as a forgone conclusion.
Says Grantham, “At the moment I’m trying to trust that we have the right sort of process in place.”