There is an energy in the air. An electricity of anticipation. President Glenn F. McConnell ’69 stands near a window in the boardroom of Randolph Hall, the light reflecting off the large medallion bearing the College’s seal he wears around his neck. He is especially careful in these moments – trying to position himself just right so as not to let the president’s medallion blind the different dignitaries with whom he is swapping small talk.
McConnell loves the pageantry surrounding May commencement. Through the walls and open doors, he can hear the orchestra playing. The gentle melody of “Pomp and Circumstance” seems to hover in this long room of high ceilings, intermingling with the oil paintings and black-and-white portraits of the College’s past board chairs spanning centuries of service. And, of course, there is just something about the academic regalia – the robes, plush caps and colorful stoles – that makes people talk in slightly hushed voices. It’s like a scene plucked right out of a movie. The moment seems both heavy and wonderful with history. And McConnell relishes it.
Finally, it is time to line up. Show time, so to speak. As the president, McConnell serves as the caboose to the long train of men and women who will parade through Alumni Hall and descend either side of Randolph Hall’s rounded steps behind the standard-bearers and faculty of the different academic schools. For the past four years, this procession through the portico to the Cistern stage has taken his breath away. The spectacle of summer tuxedos, white dresses, the black and maroon robes of faculty, administrators and trustees – and the thousands of proud faces of parents and loved ones straining to see their particular graduating student on stage – is an emotional lift like no other.
To say that the College’s May graduation ceremonies are President McConnell’s highlight of the year is a gross understatement. It is the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas all wrapped up into one. Even if he wanted to, McConnell couldn’t suppress the smile this weekend celebration elicits from his heart. Because he knows the moment of crossing the Cistern stage – for so many – will be their forever connection to this institution, to their classmates and to their fellow alumni, whether they graduated in 1918 or 2018.
In these moments, McConnell can’t help but think of his own graduation in this very spot. As he makes his way to the podium, he looks stage left, out under the shade of the oaks, and can remember exactly where his family sat, recalling the emotion and pride in their faces as he stood there on the Cistern (when the entire graduating class could sit on the actual Cistern without need of a massive stage).
“I owe everything to this place,” McConnell has said over the course of his presidency. “From my classes with some very memorable, brilliant professors, to my experience as student body president, to the relationships I made with my classmates, the College community taught me how to think and how to be a lifelong learner. These are amazing gifts that have transformed my life.”
And during commencement, that feeling of obligation to the College is reinforced. His appreciation for what the faculty and staff do for students – working with them to develop their curiosity, their problem-solving skills and their ability to think and always learn – gains renewed strength and reminds him why he came back to lead his alma mater.
This is what he hoped to do when he came in July 2014 as the 22nd president of the College: He wanted to make sure that connections like these – between students and faculty – were strong. That today’s students had an experience similar to his own extraordinary time at the College, where he felt fully prepared to tackle life’s expected and unexpected challenges.
“I have seen it up close and firsthand within our campus community,” says McConnell, “this commitment to make our graduates ready – ready for career, ready for further academic study and ready for a life of learning. Through our academic excellence and high-impact experiential learning opportunities, we provide world-class instruction in a world-class setting producing world-class minds. We make a difference.”
So what kind of difference did President McConnell make? How will the history books recall and judge his tenure at the College? It may be too soon to appreciate fully all the McConnell administration has accomplished without the benefit of a few years of hindsight in order to see and track how certain initiatives and decisions played out.
However, in the interim, there is much to recognize and much to celebrate in what President McConnell has achieved in his four years as leader of the College. It’s nearly impossible, of course, to list all the decisions and directives coming out of the C-suite of any large, complex organization, and it is perhaps even harder to do that within the context of a university setting, which mirrors the challenges of a Fortune 500 company combined with the unique demands of a small municipality (imagine Walmart, Apple or Google with residence halls and Greek life!).
True to form, President McConnell navigated the different areas of the campus community with skill and grace, leaving his mark on the College’s academics, student affairs, fundraising, facilities and institutional business, among many others. But let’s pick just a few – call it McConnell’s Magnificent Seven – seven accomplishments that have had either an immediate impact on campus or have the potential to transform the institution for generations to come.
1. The BOUNDLESS Campaign: At most universities, the role of the president is complex, with a top duty being the chief fundraiser and friend-raiser for the campus. In November 2014, President McConnell stood on the portico of Randolph Hall with campaign co-chair Steve Swanson ’89 to officially launch BOUNDLESS, a comprehensive fundraising campaign that raised $138.7 million and stands as the College’s most successful philanthropic and engagement effort to date. Over the course of the campaign’s public phase (November 2014 through June 2016), McConnell traveled the country to rally campus partners and alumni to connect with and support the College. All of this hard work raised expectations and created momentum for giving that continues today – with seven-figure gifts from Noah Thomas Leask (to create a distinguished professorship in the School of Business) and the Spaulding-Paolozzi Foundation (to renovate and modernize the College’s Sottile Theatre), to name but a few from the past year.
2. Successful 10-Year Reaffirmation: Perhaps only higher education wonks can truly appreciate the herculean task that is the modern-day accreditation process. In fact, very few presidents take a deep dive into their institution’s 10-year reaffirmation process like McConnell did. However, from his first day in office, he was concerned that the College was lacking a true culture of assessment and feared that there were holes that might derail the institution in seeking its reaccreditation (which, he knew, would be a considerable blow to the institution’s reputation). Working tirelessly with the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Planning and the Division of Academic Affairs – along with every unit on campus – McConnell led the College through its reaffirmation process, resulting in zero recommendations (note: that is a good thing). No recommendations is truly a rare feat in higher education, with most every school receiving some sort of citation for further action in order for it to be in compliance. McConnell’s hands-on approach led the College to its first “clean” report in the institution’s history.
3. CofC – WestEdge: Real estate in downtown Charleston is not cheap nor is it often even available near campus. Currently, the west side of the peninsula, between the hospital complexes and “The Joe” (home to the Charleston RiverDogs), is undergoing a large-scale development of mixed-use space in what the City of Charleston has dubbed the Discovery District. At the time, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce was relinquishing space, and – right place, right time and right connections – President McConnell was able to work with the South Carolina Legislature to acquire the property, which overlooks Brittlebank Park and the Ashley River. After some significant renovations – and the application of a large, multi-story CofC logo on its front window – the building is now home to various College administrative offices as well as the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities.
4. Charleston Bridge Program: When President McConnell came into office, he wanted to focus on initiatives that would promote the College’s accessibility, affordability and inclusivity. Having served as a longtime elected official in the S.C. Statehouse as both a senator and lieutenant governor, McConnell believes in the College’s public mission to serve South Carolina residents – as many as possible. One route, which a few institutions in the state have done, is through a bridge program. These programs, usually a full year, allow students that may not have the test scores, grade point average and/or class rank for regular admission to get extra academic help and, if they perform, provides a way for them to transfer into the institution. In fall 2017, the College launched the Charleston Bridge Program in partnership with Trident Technical College, with more than 200 students in its first class, becoming the first one-semester program of its kind in the state.
5. Collegiate Recovery Program: Perhaps no program better represents the power of private-public partnerships than the Collegiate Recovery Program, which supports students in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. The brainchild of two students – Isaac Waters and John Nix ’16 – and with the support of the greater Charleston recovery community, the Collegiate Recovery Program found a strong advocate in President McConnell, whose student affairs and institutional advancement teams worked to find private dollars, matched with institutional funds, to seed the first-of-its-kind program in South Carolina. In fall 2016, Wood Marchant ’89, a seasoned recovery professional, became the first director of the program, which serves approximately 25 students and graduated its first class this spring.
6. Research University Status: Maybe it is the lawyer in him. His dedication to reading the fine print and understanding how one word in a statute can be the difference between doing something or watching someone else do what you want to do. Early on, McConnell heard from the Charleston business community that they wished the College could offer doctoral programs in targeted areas, specifically in computer science. However, the College, by state law and in its own mission statement, did not allow for it. In his first months in office, McConnell worked with the Board of Trustees to rework the College’s mission statement to broaden its scope. Specifically, the revised mission designated the University of Charleston, S.C. (the graduate arm of the institution) as a research institution and authorized it to offer and award doctoral degrees. In April 2017, S.C. Governor Henry McMaster signed H.3793, which authorized the College to offer a doctoral degree in computer and information science and opens the door for more doctoral degrees in the future.
7. Expanding the Curriculum and Programming: President McConnell worked closely with the provost’s office, the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees to push forward new programming in the continual effort to keep the College’s coursework and offerings relevant to today’s student. A lot happened in the last four years – a flurry of academic activity and reinvention unmatched in the institution’s nearly 250-year history. Here is a list (get ready, this is as long as a line in the Addlestone Library’s Starbucks): development of the first terminal degree, the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (with the first graduating class this spring); new degree programs or concentrations in African American studies, meteorology, community planning, policy and design, data science and analytics, digital media, theatre studies, sustainable urbanism, public policy, hospitality operations management and South Carolina’s only undergraduate majors in supply chain management and commercial real estate finance; undergraduate minors in Portuguese and Brazilian studies, Southern studies and information management; graduate certificates in software engineering and information systems; a new Bachelor of General Studies (the first entirely online undergraduate program at the College); and a redeveloped M.Ed. in languages with a concentration in English as a Second Language (to become the first entirely online graduate program at the College).
The McConnell years will be remembered for much activity and liveliness, both positive and negative (alcohol bans, hurricanes, a thousand-year flood and even a once-in-a-generation snowstorm). But through it all, President McConnell kept that smile and twinkle in his eyes. Because he was here serving his alma mater – a place that shaped him and that he had the honor to shape in return.