D’ye think th’colledges has much to do with th’ progress iv th’wurruld?” asked Mr. Hennessy.
“D’ ye think,,” said Mr. Dooley, “’tis th’ mill that makes th’ wather run?”
—Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley’s Opinions
The woolly mammoth has company. It went extinct some time back. Higher education in South Carolina is hot on its tail. The woolly mammoth, it will be recalled, made news this year when a young girl suggested that the South Carolina legislature should name it the state fossil. The effort was thwarted by some of the woolly mammoths’s direct descendants who are serving in that body. They were intent on including language in the designating statute that stated that its creation took place over the 6-day period when lots of other things were being created a few thousand years back. Because of the inability of legislators to agree on whether or not that language was really needed to create a state fossil irrespective of how it came to be, the bill was put off to be considered another day. The woolly mammoth hardly noticed.
Higher education has now joined the woolly mammoth in attracting the attention of the state legislature. That body has reduced its funding and quietly anointed itself the appointing authority for the president of the College of Charleston. It has appointed a direct descendant of the woolly mammoth, Glenn McConnell. First things first.
The College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate each made what some South Carolina legislators considered bad decisions when selecting books for incoming freshmen to read. One of the books that was assigned to incoming freshmen at The College of Charleston was Fun Home. In an extensive review this book was described in the New York Times Book Review as the “most ingeniously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced “ and a “pioneering work pushing two genres . . . in multiple new directions. . . .” Its fault, as far as South Carolina legislators were concerned, is that its author is a lesbian and her sexuality plays a large part in the book. The legislators were not concerned with its literary virtues.
The University of South Carolina-Upstate also selected a book for incoming freshmen. It was Out Loud, a collection of stories that have been broadcast by an AM radio station in the Deep South about the lives of gay and lesbian Southerners.
Republican Rep. Garry Smith was an outspoken critic of asking students to read the books. He said the schools should have assigned books that examined all aspects of homosexuality, not just the perspective of members of that community. In speaking with NPR Mr. Smith said that assigning those books and attributing their assignment to “academic freedom” was the equivalent of running into a movie theater and shouting “fire” when there is no fire.” Of course in South Carolina, as in the rest of the world, there are gays and it is unclear why learning about their lives is like shouting fire when there is no fire.
In order to let the schools know what it thinks of those books, the House cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s budget and $17,000 from the University of South Carolina-Upstate’s budget. The Senate left the funds intact but decreed that the funds were to be spent for teaching the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.
The legislators did not limit their interest in higher education to curricula. They also helped the College of Charleston select its next president. Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will assume that post on July 1. Prior to his appointment the Board of Trustees of the College had hired a search committee to find a new president for the College. At a meeting of the board on February 28, 2014, the board voted on the list of candidates that had been presented to it by the search committee. The chair announced that the five candidates receiving the most votes “will be invited to become a presidential finalist” and will “be asked to participate in interviews on campus with various campus constituencies.” Mr. McConnell was not among the five. He didn’t need to be. On March 22, 2014, the board announced that Mr. McConnell would be the institution’s next president. Mr. McConnell is not an educator. He is a politician who spent more than 30 years in the state Senate before becoming Lt. Governor. He is a Civil War buff and as a member of the legislature was a strong supporter of keeping the confederate flag flying over the state capitol. He participated in many events celebrating the confederacy and has been frequently photographed dressed as a confederate general. Probably one of the nicest photos shows him in his confederate garb with two African Americans (my words not his) dressed as slaves, standing next to him. They are all smiling broadly indicating what a great time they’re all having at what was clearly a gala event.
Rumor has it that legislators pressured the trustees to hire Mr. McConnell. These are probably the same legislators who refused to give the woolly mammoth the recognition it so richly deserves unless its supporters acknowledged that it had been created on the sixth day of creation as described in the Book of Genesis. They are probably the same legislators who believe asking freshmen to read literature pertaining to our gay population is like crying fire in a non-burning theater. The woolly mammoth whose descendants in the legislature did what they did is probably embarrassed. For good reason.