By Brian Sherman
The world has changed drastically since Glenn Fant McConnell completed his studies at the College of Charleston, a degree in political science in his hand and dreams of making a difference in his mind. Nearly a half-century later, the public institution of higher learning he now leads has changed as well, adapting to the ever-changing needs of students young and older and of the large corporations that have chosen to plant roots in the booming Charleston market.
But even though the school has adapted to meet the challenges of the present and future in the Lowcountry and around the globe, the College of Charleston is not too different a place than when McConnell graduated in 1969.
“This college is different in a lot of ways,” said McConnell, who has been president of CofC since July 2014. “There’s a personal relationship between faculty and students. Our professors are on a first-name basis with our students.
“But we’re cognizant of change. Students have to be more digitally literate. That’s the way the world is headed. The College of Charleston is a rigorous academic institution, and, at the end of it, you’re prepared,” he said. “Our faculty members test our students – get them out of their comfort zone on occasion. That’s one reason I’m here. I got my start here, and I’m going to finish here.”
McConnell, now approaching his 70th birthday, earned his law degree at the University of South Carolina, then served as a state senator for 32 years, the final 11 years as president pro tempore of the Senate. As South Carolina’s lieutenant governor from 2012 to 2014, he said his experience in Columbia served him well when he returned to Charleston.
“I learned to listen, to understand that people look through different lenses at a problem,” he explained. “If we’re going to go forward, we’ve got to reach out and work through a problem and include different views. We need to seek out common ground. I’ve learned that in working with people, there’s more than one side to a question, and that is very important. There’s lots of constituencies, lots of moving parts at the College of Charleston.”
He added that his time in Columbia has been helpful in other ways, especially concerning financial support from the state for CofC.
“I know how it works up there,” he said. “I know a lot of the principal players in the process. I try to look out for the College of Charleston, to make sure we get as much support as is reasonable.”
McConnell says that though the personal relationship between teachers and students remains at the College of Charleston, the school is adapting to the world that surrounds it. He said to accommodate companies such as Boeing, Mercedes and Volvo, the number of computer sciences classes offered at the school is growing at a rate of 15 percent a year. He added that the College of Charleston is the only school in South Carolina offering an undergraduate major in supply chain management – the distribution of materials used in production.
“It’s our challenge to fill this need, and we do it well,” McConnell said.
The College of Charleston hasn’t forgotten about the many people moving to the Lowcountry who want the opportunity to finish their education. There currently are around 50 students at school’s North Charleston campus.
“More and more people want to study at nights and on weekends,” McConnell explained.
The College of Charleston is adapting in other ways as well. For example, the state’s first and only “bridge” program gets underway this fall, allowing South Carolina residents to spend a semester at CofC as Trident Technical College students. They will attend classes taught by Trident instructors, live in CofC dorms and have the opportunity to participate in activities other than intercollegiate athletics, fraternities and sororities. Students are required to complete between 12 and 17 semester hours and maintain a 2.6 grade point average.
“If they do well, they will be admitted to the College of Charleston for the spring semester,” McConnell said. “These are students who for one reason or another need an adjustment period.”
McConnell pointed out that the College of Charleston will continue to evolve in its efforts to help its students succeed in an ever-evolving world. He said plans call for the school to collaborate with another major university in the state to offer graduate-level courses in the Charleston area. He added that a masters program in supply chain management might also be in the school’s future, along with a doctorate program in Computer Science. Another classroom building in the tri-county area also is a possibility.
A key player at the state capitol in Columbia for more than three decades, McConnell’s opinion is that politics in the nation’s capital “is not on a good course.”
“I hope higher education can stay above the fray and not get into political battles,” he said.
He also hopes state leaders will continue to support schools such as CofC to keep them from becoming “tuition addictive.” He pointed out that tuition is not the only factor to consider in the realm of making sure a college education is an affordable option.
“We don’t want to create a generation of debtors. The cost of attendance, not just tuition, is important. There’s living expenses, meals, housing, and books. They all figure into the overall cost.”
McConnell mentioned one more goal for the College of Charleston: diversity. As of the fall 2016 semester, the student body, more than 11,000 strong, already was represented by 47 states – all but Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming – the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, along with 61 foreign countries, from Austria to Zaire, Australia to Pakistan.
“Diversity is important to us. We have the largest and most diverse in-state freshman class in history,” McConnell said.
He concluded: “Higher education is where great minds are educated and great discoveries are made. Here we’re about helping people reach their capabilities, to go as far as they can and to reach for their dreams. It’s part of what makes our country great."