Charleston’s next top Cougar

How we got to this point in the CofC president search

If you’re paying attention to news in the Holy City, you’ve heard about of the intrigue, politics, and circus-like atmosphere surrounding the choice for who will next lead the College of Charleston. The three-horse race features Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who has no academic background; Jody Encarnation, a CofC alumni and former Harvard professor; and Martha Saunders, former University of Southern Mississippi president. Each of the candidates will be in Charleston for campus visits this week. There had been a fourth high-profile finalist, former George W. Bush aide Andrew Card, but he unexpectedly pulled out at the last minute.

The process of picking a college president in South Carolina is usually much more prosaic. Clemson University recently hired a new leader without controversy — quick, can you even name him? — and in 2008 the University of South Carolina went through a pretty ho-hum national search before settling on Harris Pastides.

The drama began last summer when current president George Benson, who has led the school since 2007, announced he would retire in 2014. In August, former S.C. First Lady Jenny Sanford, who lives on Sullivan’s Island, told the City Paper she was eyeing the job. Charleston Rep. Chip Limehouse, who had lost a Republican bid for Congress, also expressed interest. So did McConnell.

McConnell, of West Ashley, was once the most powerful politician in South Carolina as the Senate’s president pro tempore. He was forced into the powerless lieutenant governor job when Ken Ard resigned amid scandal and the state’s Constitution demanded McConnell move up. By November, McConnell was at a crossroads and had a difficult choice to make. Would he file for election and have to fight a primary and general election campaign to keep a job he likely didn’t want, or shift his focus on leading his alma mater, where a dorm already bears his name? McConnell told media he would take the Christmas holiday to ponder his next move. He also laid out his vision for the school should he get the job, saying he wants CofC to become a research university through collaborations with the state’s three research universities, especially the Medical University of South Carolina.

Even before McConnell said he would make his decision, CofC Faculty Senate were displeased that the names of prominent local political figures who didn’t have academic backgrounds were dominating the conversation. But this is South Carolina, where being a local politician is almost like being a lord. And while Charleston might think itself more modern than other parts of the state, it can still be a political backwater where deals are cut behind the scenes without regard for the public and the constituencies such deals might affect.

Around mid-September, the Faculty Senate fired an opening salvo from one of its meetings. The group passed a unanimous resolution calling on the college to conduct a national search for its next president. Furthermore, it wanted the school’s next leader to have a background in academia. At the time, Rep. Jim Merrill (R-Charleston) told the Post & Courier he wasn’t convinced the college needed to do a national search since McConnell’s name was floating around. “It would be foolish of the college not to consider him,” Merrill said.

In October, College of Charleston board members announced they would create a search committee and hire a national search firm for about $100,000 to help scour the country to find the best person for the job. On Twitter, Rep. Leon Stavrinakas (D-West Ashley) indicated that CofC was wasting time and money going through a traditional search process since McConnell had expressed interest in the job. Later, Stavrinakis and Merrill would meld their ideas into legislation at the Statehouse calling for the merging of CofC and MUSC into the Charleston University.

Fast forward to winter. By January, Jenny Sanford was no longer talking publicly about wanting the CofC job. In fact she’d been appointed to a board position on the Charleston Aviation Authority in December. Chip Limehouse, too, had cooled his own jets. On Jan. 6, McConnell dropped the bomb: he’d leave state politics to focus on becoming the next president of CofC. About two weeks later, the CofC search committee revealed that McConnell was among more than 100 applicants from across the country who had applied for the job. The panel would whittle the names down to about five and send them as recommendations to the search committee.

At the time, critics who worried about local politics interfering with an objective search said they could only hope the process would be fair. But resentment was building in the local offices of the NAACP where Charleston chapter president Dot Scott was trying to organize a protest rally at CofC because of McConnell’s support for the Confederate flag. A photo of McConnell dressed in Confederate clothing and posing with a man and woman dressed in slave-era attire at a secession gala had been displayed on a cork board in the lobby of the local NAACP office for years. But Scott didn’t get much traction on her proposed rally or protest. That is until this past Monday when the NAACP finally held a press conference.

In February, one month to the day after McConnell announced his intention to lead the school, Reps. Merrill and Stavrinakas filed their Charleston University legislation.

The public backlash was swift and loud. The board of MUSC railed against it. CofC students were against it and told media they didn’t feel they were being listened to. The Student Government Association at MUSC passed a resolution against it. The CofC Faculty Senate said the filing of the bill had “disrupted the College of Charleston’s presidential search process.” MUSC board chairman Tom Stephenson told media the uncertainty about a merger in the wake of the bill filing had led candidates for the school’s own presidential search to withdraw. “People don’t want to come here and move from some distant place with this much uncertainty,” he’d said.

As merger talk dominated headlines, the CofC search committee was busy narrowing down its pool of 100 applicants to a recommended list of five it would send to the school’s board of trustees. When they were finished, according to anonymous sources quoted in the P&C, McConnell and Encarnation had not made the cut. But the CofC Board of Trustees included them as finalists anyway. The news agitated at least one member of the college’s nonprofit foundation who said if the board disregarded the search panel’s recommendations, it should repay the cost of hiring the search firm.

Last week, the Board of Trustees released the names of four finalists they were considering for the job. If anything is clear about how this all went down, it’s South Carolina politics as usual.

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