CofC releases presidential finalist feedback

By Ashley Barker
abarker@scbiznews.com
Published March 24, 2014

The College of Charleston community has mixed feelings about the selection of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as its next president.

Eighteen of the 20 board of trustees’ members voted in favor of McConnell on Saturday evening, while Jeff Schilz and John Wood Jr. excused themselves from the vote for undisclosed reasons.

McConnell was picked from more than 100 applicants, including finalists Martha Saunders, provost of the University of West Florida, and Dennis “Jody” Encarnation, an international businessman.

Greg Padgett, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, said the board considered feedback from every campus and community constituency before selecting McConnell.

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will become the College of Charleston’s 22nd president. (Photo by Ashley Barker)
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will become the College of Charleston’s 22nd president.
(Photo by Ashley Barker)

“I’m confident the board made the best decision for the future of the College of Charleston and the educational needs of our students and our state,” he said. “With three excellent finalists, it would be surprising if all of our campus and community constituencies could agree on who should be the top choice for the presidency.”

Padgett said McConnell intends to begin meeting with campus and community groups immediately. He added that he’s certain McConnell will “endeavor to earn the full trust of every member of our campus community, including his critics.”

The three finalists visited CofC individually on March 12-14 and were questioned by faculty, staff, alumni, students and members of the community. At the end of each session, audience members were asked to submit written feedback on each of the finalists.

More than 400 feedback forms were collected and used to create a report for the board to review on March 20. A copy of the report was released to the media after McConnell was chosen.

Faculty members returned more feedback forms than staff, students and community members, according to the report.

“While no summary report will capture every comment made by the diverse members of the campus community, this report summarizes the most common themes found contained in the feedback provided for each candidate,” the report said.

Dennis “Jody” Encarnation

Encarnation’s international business and consulting experience, specifically with the Boeing Co., was repeatedly included as a significant professional asset, according to the report. One faculty member wrote Encarnation “should be able to raise the bar of expectations — increase quality of students, faculty and academic and research.”

Others said he had a “good sense of humor,” was “articulate” and would be a “convincing advocate for the college.” Some audience members were also impressed by Encarnation’s vision for the future, which included strengthening the “third leg.”

A faculty member wrote Encarnation “has a real and genuine love for and commitment to the college.”

His business school background was criticized by some audience members who questioned his commitment to the liberal arts and his lack of knowledge about other academic disciplines, the report said.

Multiple audience members said Encarnation’s plans for the future of the college were no different than current President George Benson’s ideas. The report said it was not clear whether those types of comments were critical of Benson’s vision and Encarnation’s adoption of it or if they were critical of Encarnation for not creating a more original vision.

Faculty members noted his academic background lacked administrative work. One faculty member wrote “overseeing a program at Harvard is not academic administrative experience. They also wrote about the significant differences between the wealthy private institutions that Encarnation has worked at and a modestly endowed public university like CofC.

Some commenters said Encarnation was capable of serving effectively as president, but he would “have a lot of learning to do.” One student said he’d be a good dean or an associate provost, but that he is “not ready to lead us as president.” One faculty member suggested hiring him as the dean of the business school.

Glenn McConnell

Many audience members said McConnell’s deep understanding of state government was a strength, according to the report.

One response form indicated that “McConnell is qualified for the job and may be the only person that can fix some of the serious challenges facing the college.” A faculty member added he “can achieve a change in the college’s status from a teaching university to a research university.”

The report said several audience members appreciated McConnell for addressing diversity. A community member wrote McConnell “has worked for and voted for minority candidates to state boards and commissions.”

His concern for the affordability of higher education was also included as a strength. A student wrote McConnell could “probably get large donations,” and a volunteer leader stated the lieutenant governor would provide “access to funding so badly needed.”

The words “intelligent,” “well spoken” and a “person of integrity” were used to describe McConnell, and one person wrote that he is “smart, savvy and politically astute.”

One student said his political connections could be beneficial to the school. “I believe he could be a successful candidate if he can distance himself from former political actions and think like an educator.” A faculty member wrote “he has a lot to learn to be an effective president.”

His lack of higher education experience was a major concern among audience members, along with a “lack of knowledge about the challenges of leading a public university,” the report said.

A volunteer leader wrote “the academic community is a unique organism; I do not think one can lead faculty and staff without that experience.”

His legislative history was also criticized. One alumna wrote “he was a powerful member of the legislature when (the college’s) funding was cut,” and a student wrote “a true research university cannot rely on S.C. funding.”

Audience members also said McConnell did not answer questions that were asked of him, and he had not prepared sufficiently for his interviews, the report said. One student said McConnell “couldn’t cite one stat.” Another wrote “having no background in academia is fine … if you make the effort to become acquainted with the environment, the issues and responsibilities. This candidate seems to have put forth none of this effort and seems to believe he can work a solely political job under an academic title.”

McConnell’s hobbies and personal interests, including participating in Civil War era re-enactments and his support of the Confederate flag, were also included in comments.

One audience member wrote “it is insulting to have a Confederate re-enactor as a candidate. His reputation is certain to hinder our recruitment efforts among diverse populations.” A faculty member added that McConnell “has continually demonstrated he is not, in fact, prepared to work sincerely toward a diverse campus. He continually demonstrated an inability (while interviewing) to imagine that he might be wrong, or that his ‘right’ might be hurtful and offensive.”

Another faculty member worried about the reputation of the college with McConnell as its leader. The faculty member wrote, “It should be abundantly clear to the board of trustees that the appointment of Glenn McConnell would alienate the faculty and student body and make the College of Charleston a national laughingstock.” A CofC donor said McConnell’s presidency would be “very damaging” and the college’s “national appeal will be undone.”

Martha Saunders

Many audience members appreciated Saunders’ extensive academic experience, including her knowledge of regional accreditation requirements, according to the report. Multiple faculty members commented on her “proven track record of fundraising.”

Saunders was complimented for her “record of increasing diversity amongst students and faculty,” and she was described as having a “sense of humor and self-deprecation.” Audience members said she had a “great personality and team-oriented attitude” and is a person who “can build relationships and consensus.”

The willingness of Saunders to connect with the student body was also the subject of some comments, the report said. One student wrote, Saunders “often has lunch with students, holds open office hours and walks the campus with students. Amid the swirling controversies of this year, a president who is not afraid to be close and personal with students is a great choice.”

The report said comments recognized the value of hiring the first woman to lead the institution, especially considering the majority of the college’s students are women.

One faculty member said Saunders “did not shy away from answering” questions about her “previous difficulties,” according to the report. Another faculty member called her “the most prepared and diplomatic of all the finalists.”

Some audience members were not impressed with Saunders’ ideas for the future of the college. One faculty member wrote “She would be okay, but I was not inspired by her vision.” Another faculty member said “I expected more (from Saunders) given the importance of this (merger) issue to campus.”

At least one faculty member also said Saunders has not worked at a school “with our academic profile.” A volunteer leader said “the College of Charleston has, for some time, been in a different league than the institutions with which Provost Saunders has been associated.”

One staff member saw her as lacking leadership skills, the report said. “We need leadership, and I did not learn anything that convinced me she has the skills to deal with a faculty that is out of control,” a staff member wrote.

One faculty member added that her “thoughtfulness may be perceived as hesitation or uncertainty by those outside the college.” Another described her as “not particularly quick on her feet” and “not particularly enthusiastic.”

Some commenters noted Saunders’ lack of experience with S.C. politics and structure as a weakness, while other questioned why her last presidency ended so abruptly.

“Her reasons for wanting the CofC president job are not convincing, and after barely over one year in her current job as provost at the University of West Florida, I question her commitment to the presidency at CofC,” a faculty member wrote.

One staff member said she’d make “an excellent provost working with the president.” Another said “Martha Saunders is the one!”

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

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