CHARLESTON, S.C. — More than 750 people packed into a city auditorium here this week for a sold-out production of “Fun Home,” a musical by a New York-based troupe about a woman coming to terms with her closeted gay father’s suicide. The crowd rose in a standing ovation before the show even began.
The emotional reaction was part of a worsening political battle between South Carolina’s public universities and conservative Republican lawmakers, who argue that campus culture should reflect the socially conservative views of the state.
The state’s House of Representatives recently voted to cut $52,000 in funding for the College of Charleston as punishment for assigning students to read “Fun Home,” the graphic novel that formed the basis for the play. House lawmakers endorsed a similar budget cut for the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg for using a different book with gay themes in its reading program.
Republican lawmakers also helped pave the way for the appointment of a controversial GOP state official as the College of Charleston’s next president, sparking campus protests.
The fights serve as a reminder that rapid national shifts on social issues — particularly gay rights — are hardly universal and remain hotly contested across much of the Deep South. The views of people in South Carolina carry particular weight given the state’s early presidential primary, which gives voters here the power to help shape the GOP ticket every four years.
“We’ve got to start moving the debate,” said state Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg), one of several conservatives challenging U.S. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) as he runs for reelection this year. “For too long, conservatives have just said, ‘O.K., these institutions are liberal.’ Why would you cede that?”
“As long as I’m in office,” he said, “I will stand in the gap for those who feel like traditional family values ought to matter.”
Monday night’s staging of “Fun Home” — which was held off campus but hosted by the college — ratcheted up the confrontation further. Bright and several other state legislators said they viewed the event as a deliberate provocation and said they would seek to cut more funds from the school as a result. The earlier cuts, which were approved by the state House, are still under consideration by the state’s Senate.
In recent weeks, the legislature urged the appointment of Republican Lieutenant Gov. Glenn McConnell as the College of Charleston’s next president, two lawmakers said.
A 30-year veteran of the South Carolina Senate, McConnell is an avid Civil War reenactor who once co-owned a gift shop that sold Confederate memorabilia. Because of that past, he will take over the college in July amid student protests and a faculty vote of no confidence.
The two issues have formed a combustible mix, quickly turning the clashes into a broader political conflict between right and left.
“I’ve gotten my eyes opened a little bit,” said Alison Bechdel, the Vermont-based cartoonist who wrote “Fun Home,” which deals with her relationship with her father and her own discovery in the 1980s that she was a lesbian. “I live in the Northeast in a pretty liberal place, and I’ve sort of been lulled into complacency. This has been an interesting wake-up call.”
The current controversy began when a committee of College of Charleston faculty members chose the book as part of a campus program that encourages freshman to read a book and then take part in discussions and lectures about it. The school purchased copies of the graphic novel — which includes cartoons that show two women having sex — for every incoming freshman and paid to bring Bechdel to campus to speak.
In Spartanburg, professors at the University of South Carolina Upstate also chose a book with gay themes for a similar reading program and now face a $17,000 budget cut for the selection. The university canceled a planned lecture by a lesbian comedian earlier this month under pressure from lawmakers.
The College of Charleston’s outgoing president, business school professor George Benson, has supported students and faculty members protesting the budget cuts. On Monday, he stood serenely and waved from the balcony of the school’s main administrative building while about 60 students chanted at a gay rights rally.
“University faculty must be able to generate, discuss and transfer ideas to students and society without fear of censorship,” Benson said in a statement that one student read aloud through a bull horn. “Is there an alternative to academic freedom? Yes, there is. It’s called oppression.”
Students and faculty protesting the budget cuts say they do not expect similar support from the college’s new president, whose selection last month has deepened the sense here that the campus is under siege from the General Assembly.
“It’s hard for me to believe he was chosen just because he wanted this,” said Alison Piepmeier, director of the women’s and gender studies program at the college. “I think this was part of an effort to tame the campus.”
A lawyer and active alumnus, McConnell has never worked in higher education and did not appear on a list of finalists forwarded by a search committee organized to find a new president. The college’s governing board selected him as one of three finalists for the job before naming him to the job last month.
Bright and state Rep. James Merrill (R-Charleston) said lawmakers were active in making phone calls to legislatively appointed trustees, urging the selection of their former colleague to run the school.
McConnell and Gregory Padgett, the board of trustees chairman, did not respond to interview requests. Padgett said in a statement that the board believed McConnell would work to keep college costs low and educational quality high, and that he would gain the trust of his critics.
“I’m confident the board made the best decision for the future of the College of Charleston and the educational needs of our students and our state,” Padgett said.
But Bri Sander, a 22-year-old senior from Spartanburg, said McConnell failed to assuage concerns at a meeting with a group of student protesters three weeks ago when he was asked about his support for the Confederate flag. A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, McConnell sometimes dresses as a Confederate general and once said a proposal to remove the flag from the South Carolina statehouse would amount to “cultural genocide.”
“He said that he thinks people should educate themselves on the significance of reenactments and the Confederate history that he’s so passionate about,” she said. “It didn’t address our concerns. Ultimately, we feel the brand and the name of the college will be harmed.”
The selection has been particularly controversial given the complicated history of racial issues at the College of Charleston, which went private in the 1950s in part to avoid integration and did not enroll any black students until 1967. Now part of the state university system, the college’s proportion of black students — 6.4 percent — ranks it near the bottom among South Carolina schools.
“The wounds this place created are very real and still hurt. And these are the parents and grandparents we’re asking to send their kids here,” said Consuela Francis, director of African American studies at the college. Francis said she fears McConnell’s selection will make the already difficult task of recruiting black students and faculty even harder.
McConnell’s supporters note he was active in forging a deal that removed the Confederate flag from the top of the state house dome in 2000 and installed it as part of a prominent memorial on the capital’s grounds. He also helped erect an African American monument nearby and has support from a number of black lawmakers.
“Knowing what the College of Charleston needs, I think they made an excellent choice,” Merrill said. “The fact is, academics wanted a person from their world to run things. But you don’t need to be an academic to be a top-notch administrator.”
Merrill called the concerns over recruitment of black students a “specious argument.”
“It’s an abysmal record right now. There’s no place to go but up from there,” he said.
Bright said that racial politics in South Carolina are more complicated than outsiders sometimes suggest.
Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who through a line item veto may hold the final decision on the college budget cuts, is an Indian American. And the College of Charleston announced Monday that its graduation speaker will be U.S. Sen. Tim Scott — the only black Republican in Congress.
“I’m sure those professors are trying to stoke up as much rage as they can,” Bright said. “But the average person in South Carolina, we’re beyond that.”