S.C. college students decry next president's Confederate ties

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 01, 2014 8:43 PM

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Students and faculty at a liberal arts college in South Carolina are protesting the selection of the state's lieutenant governor as their next president, citing his record as a defender of Confederate history.

Students at the College of Charleston have held up signs reading "This is 2014, not 1814" during protests against their new president, known as a Civil War re-enactor and for his fight to keep the Confederate flag flying at the State House.

On Tuesday night, the College of Charleston's faculty Senate issued a unanimous vote of no confidence in the school's board of trustees for choosing Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell to lead the small, public college that was founded in 1770.

Although a largely symbolic move, it highlights concerns that he would hurt the Charleston college's diversity efforts in the state where the American Civil War began after South Carolina and six other states permitting slavery set up the Confederacy in 1861.

McConnell, a longtime state lawmaker who once owned a Confederate memorabilia store, graduated from the College of Charleston in 1969.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People circulated a 2010 photograph showing McConnell in a Confederate uniform and flanked by two black re-enactors dressed as slaves.

"Will students and faculty of color believe that they are welcome and valued at an institution whose president participates in re-enactment?" said faculty Senate Speaker Lynn Cherry.

McConnell, who served more than 30 years in the state Senate before filling a vacant lieutenant governor's seat in 2012, said he would work to improve diversity efforts at the college, where about 6 percent of the 11,000 undergraduates are black.

His involvement in Civil War re-enactments is about bringing history to life, he said, noting the unit he belongs to "does both Union and Confederate."

"If you criticize me for loving history, that's a criticism I'll have to bear," he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "To know where you're going, you have to know where you've been."

McConnell's critics have said he fought to keep the Confederate flag's official presence at South Carolina's statehouse in 2000. Supporters have credited him with brokering the compromise that removed the flag from atop the statehouse dome and placed it on the grounds, where it still flies.

"To me, the deeper issue is whether Lt. Gov. McConnell is a racist, as some claim," G. Lee Mikell, vice chairman of the college's Board of Trustees, wrote in the Post and Courier newspaper on Tuesday. "I am absolutely convinced he is not."

Supporters have said McConnell could sway the state legislature, which has cut higher education budgets for years, to give more money to the college. Last month, the state House voted to cut the College of Charleston's funding by $52,000 because the school assigned gay-themed literature to incoming freshmen.

Those working to improve the college's reputation with minorities remain unconvinced McConnell will help their cause. The school sought to position itself as the only all-white college in South Carolina in the mid-1960s before desegregating later that decade, said professor Joe Kelly, co-director of the president's commission for diversity.

"Black students we are recruiting now, their parents and grandparents remember when they weren't welcome on campus at all," Kelly said. "We are going to have to do more work to sell the case that the college is not an inhospitable place for minority students."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Andrew Hay)