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 an avid 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.
The College of Charleston’s faculty Senate is expected to issue a vote of no confidence Tuesday night in the school’s board of trustees for choosing Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell to lead the small, public college.
Although a largely symbolic move, it highlights concerns 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. His selection last month as its next president has roiled the college, which was founded in 1770.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People circulated a 2010 photograph showing McConnell in a Confederate uniform while 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 will work to improve diversity efforts at the college, where only 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 phone interview on Tuesday. “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.”
McConnell’s critics say he fought to keep the Confederate flag’s official presence at South Carolina’s statehouse in 2000. Supporters credit 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 say 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