College of Charleston presidential finalists answer questions on campus

By Ashley Barker
Published March 17, 2014

Contenders for the 22nd president of the College of Charleston each spent five hours fielding questions from faculty, staff, students and community members last week.

Input from the groups will be used by the college’s board of trustees to choose among Jody Encarnation, Glenn McConnell or Martha Saunders as CofC’s new leader.

During each session, guests were invited to fill out a summary sheet indicating the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses as well as why the candidate is or is not capable of successfully serving as president.

The board will review the sheets and is expected to pick a new president to replace George Benson in late March or early April. Benson will step down and return to the classroom as a professor on June 30.

Here is a brief overview of each candidate’s interview. See next Monday’s print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal for more coverage.

Jody Encarnation
Photo by Ashley Barker

Jody Encarnation
With tears forming in the corners of his eyes, Dennis “Jody” Encarnation told faculty members that the reason he wants to be their leader is because CofC did everything for him.

“It’s everything to me,” Encarnation said. “I’m at a point in my life where I want to make a contribution to this institution.”

The self-described Charleston “poor kid” received a scholarship and graduated from CofC in 1974. Back then, he said CofC was purely a liberal arts college that compared itself to Davidson College. The current students are now demanding more of his alma mater though.

Encarnation, who splits time between Charleston and Boston, attended the May 2013 graduation and was surprised to learn that more than 40% of the graduates had pursued business or education degrees. It shocked him even more to find out that within three years, roughly half of CofC graduates will focus their studies on areas outside of the traditional liberal arts core.

That discovery led him to develop a plan he calls the 2020 vision for the college. He outlined three initiatives within his plan during his campus visit on Wednesday.

“We need to be looking to companies to help promote scholarships, internships, work-study programs, etc. Boeing isn’t just interested in the business-school graduate,” he said. “They want people who have language skills, who can communicate and have critical thinking skills.”

If he’s chosen as president, Encarnation, 61, would also like to combine the college’s computer science and entrepreneurship programs to create a “center of excellence” that others might be willing to fund.

Encarnation, who taught at Harvard University for nearly 30 years, said he hasn’t found a huge need to create Ph.D. programs at the college, but believes there are ample opportunities for targeted master’s degree programs. It’ll be something he plans to discuss with the college community.

“Folks in the corner office tend to lose touch,” he said. “I want to be an advocate for students, and the best way to do that is to be in the classroom.”

Glenn McConnell
Photo by Ashley Barker

Glenn McConnell
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell was asked to defend issues related to racism during much of his visit to the CofC campus on Thursday.

Faculty and staff members along with students questioned the former president pro tempore’s stance on the Confederate flag and his participation in Civil War reenactments as well as his relationship with the NAACP. They wanted to know if his past would create, as one faculty member said, a “wound in the soul of the college.”

“The college taught me how to think. It launched me on a career, and it gave me a mind,” McConnell said. “The liberal arts education creates the whole person. It really gives them the broader view.”

McConnell, 66, acknowledged that not everyone supports him and said his belief in exposing others to history should not be a hindrance.

“The key for a president is to get the respect on the basis that their word is good, communication is correct. I’m reaching out and want to work with you,” he told faculty members. “I prefer you like me, but at least respect me that I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Last May, McConnell said he sat in the Cistern Yard and watched the faces of students and their families. He said being there brought back his own graduation memories, and he realized then that the college needed to be defended.

“The college is at a crossroads. There are outside force at work that could decide your future before it’s over,” he told CofC faculty. “We need to decide our own future, and that is to protect the liberal arts core, indicate that we’re open to being relevant to the business community, the social community and others.”

If he becomes president, McConnell intends to reengage the many college presidents across the state. To get the legislature’s attention, he wants the leaders to team up and speak in an active and loud voice about why higher education is important.

He’d also like to increase diversity on campus and said black student enrollment hovering at 6% is unacceptable. To attract high-achieving students living in low socioeconomic areas, McConnell said high school guidance counselors and alumni need to step up their recruitment efforts. The lieutenant governor would like to host symposiums for high school students to visit the campus because he said many “don’t know about it, or they think it’s a rich person’s college.”

McConnell, who was criticized for having no academic leadership or teaching experience, said there have been many great presidents at institutions who were not originally in education.

“One size does not fit all. I believe I have proven at the Senate and other places that the record I have has been about bringing people together and healing,” he said. “I don’t believe misconceptions should become impediments to the truth.”

When a faculty member asked if he’d be willing to stop participating in historical reenactments, McConnell said the events are solely focused on teaching visitors about the history and culture of the Lowcountry.

“It’s sad that when people spin the truth and distort what it was to make it appear to be something else,” he said. “I believe in teaching history. I believe in exposing it to all people. Judge people not by their words, but by their actions.”

He added that everyone has a shared existence and a shared history.

“You don’t have to like it; you don’t have to accept it. But try to learn something about it,” McConnell said. “That’s what education is about. It’s about exposing yourself to different concepts and different ideas.”

Martha Saunders
Photo by Ashley Barker

Martha Saunders
Martha Saunders introduced herself to faculty members by saying she has no secrets left. She’s been vetted for a couple presidencies before and feels as though everything is already on the table.

“You know all the skeletons that were ever in the closet, or if not, they’re very well hidden and you’ll never know,” she said with a laugh on Friday.

Saunders, 65, has served in almost every administrative capacity on a campus in four different university systems.

“You learn a lot when you’re in different states. The same work gets done but in a little different way and a little different structure,” she said.

In her limited amount of time on the Charleston campus, Saunders said she can feel change in the wind.

“You have a community that has a wealth of history, beauty, charm, but also there’s a dynamic and some energy here,” she told faculty members. “There’s an eagerness to do something. There may be a difference of opinion of what gets done, but there’s a wonderful eagerness here, and that’s a gift and blessing.”

If she becomes the college’s first female president, Saunders said her initial pet project will be to energize all the stakeholders — students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community — and get them all behind two or three moving-forward projects.

“Let’s decide to do something — there’s plenty of things to do — and let’s go,” she said.

Saunders, who has a background in public relations, said the college needs to be more well-known on a national level and needs true leadership.

“Presidents come, and presidents go. It’s important to me, and it’s always been a professional goal of mine, to make sure I leave a place better than I found it,” she said.

When she attended new presidents’ academy while working at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Saunders said she learned what’s most important for educational leaders.

“When you’re done, if you’ve left them a little bigger, a little richer and a little more beautiful, you’ve done your job,” she said. “I can’t say we’ll be bigger; I can’t say we’ll be smaller. I will say if I’ve done my job, we have built on this legacy.”

The legacy will involve working with the Legislature, something Saunders said she has done plenty before.

“They’re all the same. The problem with legislatures, across the country, is there’s a lot of not understanding of higher ed,” she told CofC faculty members. “There are higher and higher expectations, but maybe not so much understanding of the value of higher education. These are common, teachable moments.”

Saunders hopes to be a role model to Lowcountry women and not a cautionary tale.

“I was the first woman dean, first woman provost, and I’ve been the first woman president twice,” she said. “I really hope, if I come here, that this would be the last time I’m the first woman anything. It’s time for that to be done.”

Reach Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker.

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