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The Post and Courier takes a closer look at the possible strengths and weaknesses of the College of Charleston's three presidential finalists. The candidates will be on campus this week. In Local

NAACP leaders say that if Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell is hired as the next president of the College of Charleston, they will work relentlessly to inform potential students and athletes nationwide about his connection to Confederate causes and his support of the Confederate battle flag flying on the Statehouse grounds.

McConnell said the NAACP's characterization of him is incorrect and misleading. He is committed to increasing diversity at the college, and his record shows he has the ability to do that, he said.

The NAACP released a fiery statement on McConnell being among three finalists for the president's post at a news conference Monday on Rivers Green on the downtown college campus.

Dennis "Jody" Encarnation, who taught at the Harvard Business School and Harvard's Center for Business and Government for about three decades before retiring, and Martha Saunders, provost at the University of West Florida, also are finalists.

The new president will take the reins from George Benson, who will step down at the end of June to join the college's business faculty.

"If they do make the mistake of hiring Glenn McConnell, they will be regretful for many days after," said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church and former national chief operating officer of the NAACP.

NAACP leaders also said they would widely circulate a photograph of McConnell dressed in a Confederate general uniform flanked on either side by two black people who appear to be dressed as slaves. McConnell, who previously served in the state Senate for more than three decades, said, "I am defined by my record, not by their rhetoric."

Diversity matters

Currently only about 6 percent of students enrolled at the college are black, while blacks make up about 30 percent of the population of South Carolina. College leaders have launched efforts to boost diversity in recent years, but the numbers haven't budged.

According to the NAACP's statement, McConnell being hired would further discourage minority students from enrolling because he:

Spearheaded the effort to prevent the removal of the battle flag from the Statehouse dome and the legislative chambers of the capitol.

Would agree to a compromise only if the flag were placed in a prominent place on the Statehouse grounds.

Refused to support efforts to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday unless the state also made Confederate Memorial Day a holiday. To achieve that, state employees lost Election Day as a state holiday.

Is a devotee of Confederate heritage who saw to it that state funds were allocated to raise and preserve the Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley.

Is an ardent supporter of states' rights, "which progressive organizations recognize as a euphemism for the right of states to hold on to the egregious wrongs of slavery."

Rivers also said McConnell, who has never worked at a college, isn't qualified for the job.

McConnell said that he's committed to increasing diversity at the college if he's hired as president. He also said he was a champion for many issues of interest to the state's black residents during his years in the Senate, including:

Increasing diversity among state judges.

Allocating money from the S.C. Education Lottery to the state's historically black colleges.

Defending and preserving state money for the "Call Me Mister" program, which trains black male teachers and places them in South Carolina classrooms.

Serving as chairman of the African American History Monument Commission, a group that raised $2 million to design, build, and place on the Statehouse grounds a monument to pay tribute to the African- American experience from slavery to civil rights.

Confederate battle flag

McConnell, 67, of Charleston, was elected to the state Senate in 1980 and served for 32 years, the last 11 years as president pro tempore. He was one of the most powerful men in South Carolina, but state law last year required him to move into the lieutenant governor's office when Ken Ard resigned after being indicted for ethics violations.

During his years in the Senate, McConnell earned wide respect among legislators as a fair and honest man who was willing to work with all members. That included many members of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, even though many of them disagreed with his stance on the flag and other issues.

He is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Civil War re-enactor and the former owner of a store that sold Confederate memorabilia, flags and other items. He also is a prominent face associated with the flying of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds, a move that prompted the NAACP to call for an economic boycott of South Carolina.

After a highly contentious debate in 2000, legislators eventually compromised by moving the flag from atop the Statehouse dome to the grounds, next to a Confederate memorial. Opponents argue that location is even more prominent.

McConnell said the 2010 photograph of him that the NAACP is threatening to circulate nationwide simply was him posing with Gullah Geechee re-enactors during a Charleston event hosted by the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women.

He's part of a group that re-enacts Civil War history, he said, not Confederate history. "But when we're in our Union outfits, it seems no one wants to take our pictures."

Re-enacting simply is way to make history come alive, he said.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who is black, said he disagrees with the NAACP about McConnell. "None of them who are speaking have ever worked with McConnell," he said. "He has been nothing but fantastic to work with."

Jackson called the NAACP's comments on McConnell "character assassination."

Dozens of students who were opposed to McConnell being hired as the school's next leader attended the news conference, where they chanted "Glenn is not our man."

Elsewhere on campus, a banner was hung in front of the President's House, reading "No Confederates for CofC President" with a Confederate flag with a circle drawn through it.

Ethan Smith, a junior from Bowie, Md., said before the press conference he and many other students chose to attend the college because it focused on liberal arts, open dialogue, encouraging students to explore new ways of thinking and valuing individual differences. "What Glenn McConnell stands for is very different than why we chose this institution."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.