The intensifying debate over the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina State House has landed the president of a Charleston liberal-arts college in some hot water.
Last Thursday, Glenn McConnell, president at the College of Charleston, released a statement expressing his condolences to the families affected by the shooting at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Our entire campus community sends its thoughts and prayers to the families and loved ones affected by this senseless and unthinkable tragedy,” said McConnell. Among the slain was Cynthia Hurd, a part-time librarian at the college.
“Of course, we are all reeling in shock right now, and it is only natural to concentrate on the heinous crime and its disturbed perpetrator.”
The statement, however, did not reference “racism” or “hate crime.” The oversight, combined with McConnell’s past as a vigorous defender of the flag—and purveyor of Confederate memorabilia—has put the administrator at odds with many students at the small liberal arts campus.
The backlash among some students reflects widespread demands among activists to explicitly label the shooting an act of racism and domestic terror. Governor Nikki Haley clarified that the tragedy at Mother Emanuel was “an absolute a hate crime” after her initial statements excluding that fact.
McConnell’s statement was issued before a racist manifesto written by Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter, was published online, making clear his prejudiced views.
“It’s frustrating because [the attack] was racially motivated,” said Katherine Mendoza, a rising senior at the College of Charleston majoring in political science and sociology. Mendoza hadn’t read the statement at the time of this interview. “Dylann Roof even said it was racially motivated,” she said, “so it’s frustrating that the leader of my university can’t come to that conclusion.”
“He wasn’t the first choice for president,” said Mendoza.
McConnell, 67, became president of the college last year after a flurry of protests. According to the Post and Courier, 83 percent of college faculty disapproved of him, and one student gathered two thousand signatures in a petition opposing his appointment.
Before he was president at the College of Charleston, McConnell held positions as Lieutenant Governor and state senator. In those posts he was a vocal supporter and advocate of keeping the Confederate flag flying at the state house. According to the Washington Post, McConnell once said taking down the flag would be considered “cultural genocide” for his state.
In 2010 McConnell appeared in a photo dressed as a confederate soldier standing next to what appear to be slaves, and owned a store that sold confederate memorabilia.
Ashley Sprouse, a rising senior at the college, is less concerned with McConnell’s statement. “My focus has not been on Glenn McConnell but on the victims,” she told Fusion in a phone interview.
“Yes, I'm aware of McConnell's history of fighting to keep the Confederate flag up on state grounds. But as of right now, he is not legislator,” Sprouse said in a follow-up email. “He can't take down the flag.”
Fusion reached out to McConnell and asked whether he viewed the tragedy at Mother Emanuel as a “hate crime” and if he still supported the Confederate flag flying at the state house. McConnell did not return request for comment by the time of publishing.
“I find that [McConnell] took on this narrative that the media wants to continue to push, the idea that it was just this one instance and that it’s not systemic issue,” said a rising senior at the College of Charleston who goes by his last name, Pope. “The percentage of black students went down to 5 percent this year, it was 6 percent,” he said. “I find that he is very much set in that story or narrative. He might not vocally embrace it…but it’s hardwired.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.