Leadership & Governance

As College of Charleston’s President Speaks on Confederate Flag, Faculty Question His Timing and Message

Mary Ann Chastain

Glenn McConnell, a former South Carolina politician and current president of the College of Charleston. His personal history with the Confederate flag has complicated his response to the brewing controversy over its prominence in the state.
June 26, 2015

On Friday the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator who was one of nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killed by a young white man during a prayer meeting, was buried. His funeral took place just two blocks away from the church, at the College of Charleston, where one of Mr. Pinckney’s friends and former colleagues, Glenn F. McConnell, is the president.

Two days earlier, thousands of mourners watched Mr. Pinckney’s coffin arrive on a horse-drawn military carriage, passing by a controversial Confederate battle flag that had inspired his alleged killer’s racial hatred.

Mr. McConnell has his own history with that flag. He was the chief architect of a compromise in 2000 that took the flag off the dome of the state’s Capitol and moved it next to a Confederate war memorial on the State House grounds. He is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and as a Civil War re-enactor he has been photographed wearing a Confederate uniform with black people posing as slaves.

Those facts made Mr. McConnell a controversial choice as president of the college last year. And they have now complicated how he, as president, has responded to the killings and the brewing controversy over the Confederate flag’s place in public life.

For several days, in fact, he had no official response. Last Monday, Gov. Nikki R. Haley called for the flag to come down from its spot near the Capitol. Many of South Carolina’s public-college presidents — including Harris Pastides of the University of South Carolina at Columbia and James P. Clements of Clemson University — said the same, and the Citadel’s Board of Visitors voted to remove a Confederate naval flag from its chapel. On Wednesday, at a meeting attended by Mr. McConnell, the College of Charleston’s Board of Trustees approved a resolution supporting Governor Haley’s stance.

Mr. McConnell did not speak publicly on the matter until Thursday, when he released a statement supporting the removal of the flag. Many observers of the president’s political career — he served as a Republican state senator for more than three decades and left the lieutenant governorship to take the Charleston job — pointed to the statement as a watershed moment, a sign that even a longtime supporter of the flag now wanted it taken down.

But among many professors on the Charleston campus, the reaction was different. The killings at Emanuel AME have wounded not only the City of Charleston but also the college. The tragedy looms at a time when the college is trying to attract a more diverse enrollment and faculty, and to improve relations with neighboring black communities that have been hurt by gentrification and the college’s expansion.

Painful Associations

In his statement, Mr. McConnell said he had hoped to avoid commenting on "political issues" during a period of grief. But he said that the rising tide of emotion over Governor Haley’s announcement, along with numerous requests for him to speak up, had made a respectful period of silence impossible.

"I support Governor Haley’s call to remove the Confederate soldier’s flag from State House grounds as a visible statement of courtesy and good will to all those who may be offended by it," he said in the statement. "At the same time, I also urge all public officials and activists who are focusing on this issue to come together, the way the good people of Charleston joined hands following the terrible tragedy we suffered, and agree not to transfer the fight to other physical vestiges and memorials of our state’s past."

While arguing that the flag was an obstacle to unity, he cautioned against "efforts to sanitize, rewrite, or bulldoze our history."

"In a spirit of good will and mutual respect, let us all agree that the monuments, cemeteries, historic street and building names shall be preserved and protected," Mr. McConnell said. Through a representative, he declined a request for an interview.

Before he released the statement, both black and white faculty members at the college said they had been troubled by Mr. McConnell’s silence. "Myself, and many others, would have loved for him to make these statements sooner," said Anthony D. Greene, an associate professor of African-American studies and sociology.

Afterward, many of those professors said they were pleased that the president had finally spoken up, but many also said they found the content of his statement troubling. Faculty members cited what they saw as false equivalences between Confederate and African-American history, and said the president had displayed little recognition of the painful associations that the flag holds for people of color.

"I am glad the president took a position in public at last," said Mari Crabtree, an assistant professor of African-American studies who identifies as half-Japanese, half-white, "but I don’t think the removal of the flag can be, as he frames it, a question of agreeing to disagree on interpretation in the name of unity."

"His statement says to me that property and Confederate history are more important than my humanity," said Conseula Francis, director of the program in African-American studies and the institution’s only black female full professor. She counts seeing the State House’s Confederate flag and a statue alongside it memorializing the Confederate statesman John C. Calhoun as a daily microaggression.

On campus email lists, she said, faculty members and students who have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement are seeking to take down all of Charleston’s monuments and change all the street names that commemorate Confederate leaders. In that context, professors said, Mr. McConnell’s comments about agreeing "not to transfer the fight" do not square with his role as a leader of a campus that is trying to change its face.

Ms. Francis predicted that the campus’s faculty members and administrators would fall into two camps as they reacted to Mr. McConnell’s statement. "Some will applaud the statement and say, Let’s not go crazy and take everything down. Some who are most interested a show of unity and Charleston handling this with great dignity will be comforted by the words," she said. "And others, like me, are going to say there was such an opportunity here and he wasted it."

A Diversifying Campus

The irony is that some of the same professors who criticized the statement said they had been pleasantly surprised by other aspects of Mr. McConnell’s performance as president.

He took office amid concerns that his appointment would damage the college’s ability to recruit students and faculty members of color. "The moment that his candidacy was announced, faculty and students were very vocal in their opposition," said Jon N. Hale, an assistant professor who specializes in the history of education and civil rights. "The Board of Trustees weren’t listening to faculty who expressed concerns about his public support for the Confederate flag and about him playing dress-up with African-Americans."

But Mr. Hale said Mr. McConnell had made sound business decisions and more good-faith efforts to support campus-diversity initiatives than past presidents had. The college is establishing a pilot program under which any applicant in the top 10 percent of his or her high-school graduating class in seven designated counties is admitted. There has also been an effort to increase financial support for diverse speakers and a summer bridge program that helps multicultural and first-generation students make the transition from high school to college. Individual faculty members and departments are reaching out to local neighborhoods through public programs, lectures series, and community service.

"Contrary to popular belief, we have been making excellent progress in addressing a painful, racist history and creating the space for public discourse," Mr. Hale said.

Faculty members say that improving campus diversity is an uphill battle — and an important goal. In a city with a black population of around 25 percent, African-American students compose just 7 percent of the enrollment. (Over all, 17 percent of the college’s students come from underrepresented groups.) Black faculty members make up just 4 percent of the campus’s professoriate.

"We are seen by the black community as a bastion of segregation, and the college is seen as having a shallow commitment to social justice," Mr. Hale said. "Most of the black people you see on campus are wearing uniforms." Around the campus, issues of race are acknowledged in a "polite, Southern way," he said, "but there are systemic issues and a history that are not proactively addressed."

Faculty members said Charleston’s struggle to achieve diversity predates Mr. McConnell’s tenure.

"It’s not his creation," says Ms. Crabtree, the African-American studies professor. "But it does not help to address those kinds of issues if you continue to remain silent on a terribly controversial issue."

Ms. Francis, head of the African-American studies program, said she had no doubt that Mr. McConnell, an alumnus of the college who has a building and a road in town named for him, loves the institution and wants to be a great president.

"But he doesn’t fully appreciate that being a good leader here is not just about being willing to make tough decisions but also about being willing to confront thorny issues," she said. "Just acknowledge that it is painful and it is unequivocally a symbol of hate used by people who mean to do black people harm. I just want him to acknowledge it."

Stacey Patton writes about the academic job market, the experiences of being a graduate student or faculty member, adjunct-labor issues, and race and diversity in academe. Contact her at stacey.patton@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @DrStaceyPatton.

Correction (6/29/2015, 3:49 p.m.): This article originally stated incorrectly that public-college presidents in South Carolina had endorsed Governor Haley's call for the removal of a Confederate flag from the State House grounds only after the governor had spoken out. At least one of the presidents called for the flag's removal before Ms. Haley had done so. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.