The College of Charleston’s board of trustees adopted in 2012 its first-ever Diversity Strategic Plan. The plan, to be implemented over a five-year period, was meant to address the college’s many “diversity challenges.” It seems the board just created itself a new challenge.
The board tapped South Carolina Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the college’s next president. The announcement was followed by a week of protests, including a student walkout on campus Friday. McConnell is one of the most powerful and well-known politicians in the state, having served 30 years in the state Senate, 11 of them as Senate leader, before becoming lieutenant governor in 2012.
McConnell also happens to be a huge proponent of flying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state capitol. He’s an avid Civil War re-enactor who’s fond of dressing as a Confederate general. And for 20 years he owned a store that sold Confederate artifacts and memorabilia. All of that qualifies McConnell as a diversity challenge for the College of Charleston.
The college is in a city and state with a legacy of racism, and in an executive summary of its diversity plan, the college acknowledged its own shortcomings:
… the climate at the College does not effectively welcome all population groups—especially minorities, international students, and members of the LGBTQQAI community.
No matter the College's significant accomplishments in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, our administration in those years has bequeathed to us a disturbing history of racism that lives in the memory of our neighbors. For example, the College first purchased many of the beautiful historic houses that grace our campus today in order to prevent African Americans from living nearby.
Given the inextricable histories of the college, city and state, as well as the board’s stated desire to make the school more welcoming, appealing and inclusive, why would they hire McConnell? None of the information about his Confederate embrace is newly discovered. He’s a big name in South Carolina politics, and his affinity for the Confederacy has been known for decades.
When then-Gov. David Beasley in 1996 called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the capitol dome, McConnell said taking it down would amount to “cultural genocide.” McConnell won that round, and the flag stayed. A few years later, when the NAACP called for a tourism boycott of the state because of the flag, McConnell was out front once again fighting to keep the flag in place. Eventually, he was part of a compromise that moved the flag from the capitol dome to another spot in front of the capitol, where it still flies today.
He drew criticism in 2010 when a picture of him dressed as a Confederate general circulated online. In the photo, he appears to be standing between two people dressed as slaves. You can also find online a picture of him standing in his memorabilia store, surrounded by the largest collection of Confederate flags you’ve ever seen in your life.
The board reportedly ignored its own hiring committee’s recommendations and chose McConnell, who has never worked in higher education. The answer to why the board chose him might be simple: politics. The board of trustees is full of political appointees chosen by the state’s general assembly, where McConnell has plenty of longtime allies.
For his part, McConnell makes no apologies for promoting the Confederacy. He calls Civil War reenacting a hobby that’s a way of teaching and bringing history to life. “We shouldn’t forget about the ills of slavery, the mistakes of the past,” he said in a recent interview. He dismisses critics as folks “who never met me, they’ve never worked with me, they don’t even know me.”
Even if you try to take McConnell at his word that he’s not a racist and that he embraces some but not all of the culture and history of the South, the state and McConnell himself have not earned the benefit of the doubt. South Carolinians will point to their Indian-American governor and black GOP Sen. Tim Scott as proof of the state’s progress. But a story like this unfortunately generates the type of headlines that sound like business as usual in South Carolina. That’s why your reaction to reading this article probably wasn’t one of shock. It was likely a shaking of the head, then a shrugging of the shoulders, followed by, “What do you expect? It’s South Carolina.”
T.J. Holmes is a journalist and TV personality. Formerly of CNN, he can currently be found at MSNBC, and his commentary can be found online. Follow him on Twitter.