05/02/2014 05:57 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

College of Charleston Times, They Are a-Changin'

I moved to South Carolina in 1976 to be a math professor at the College of Charleston, a school founded in 1770 that had been receiving modest publicity for its steadily improving liberal arts program. However, it became even better known in 1998 when the College's then-president Alex Sanders jokingly (I think) called its basketball team's upset of third-ranked University of North Carolina the greatest day in the college's glorious history.

Over the past few weeks, the College of Charleston has received more publicity than in its previous 244 years, as the New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, and other national media outlets featured stories about the college. While I think almost all publicity is good, the "almost" might be applicable here because of the two controversies that led to this publicity. Each involved a choice: of a new president and of a new book.

The Board of Trustees unanimously chose state Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell as the next college president, despite strong opposition by faculty and students. A long time defender of the Confederacy, McConnell fought to keep the Confederate flag atop the Capitol dome. While a state senator, his Confederate memorabilia store sold items that included Maurice Bessinger's barbeque sauce, which lots of shoppers and stores were boycotting because of Bessinger's biblically justified pro-slavery tracts, and toilet paper with the image of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Many were more upset with the process by which the trustees chose McConnell, who was not among search committee finalists. The trustees apparently caved to pressure from the South Carolina legislature, where McConnell had served for 30 years. In fact, a long time trustee, Daniel Ravenel, was ousted by the legislature because of his lackluster support for McConnell.

The controversial book issue involved Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, which a committee of faculty, staff, administrators, and students had picked as an option for students to read and discuss. After the college sent copies to incoming students, South Carolina legislators vociferously objected to the book because of its lesbian theme, and the House voted to remove $52,000 in funding for the college, the cost of the books. As I write this, the Senate has yet to vote on the matter.

I do see some good news. The Board of Trustees and Legislature unintentionally activated and united faculty and students as never before. When I arrived on campus in 1976, faculty and students were mostly apathetic about governance and social issues. The college had integrated less than a decade earlier, but there wasn't much intermingling between blacks and whites on campus. Students at graduation ceremonies walked onto the stage alphabetically in pairs, but some parents complained if their white daughter had to walk alongside a black male.

While Bob Dylan might have inspired a generation with his 1964 song, The Times They Are a-Changin,' it's still "not so much" in South Carolina. But better late than never, and I hope that the times are finally changing in South Carolina--at least for young people.

Glenn McConnell was a College of Charleston student back in the 60s when it was a segregated institution and students weren't even protesting the Vietnam War. However, students are now organizing and protesting against McConnell and the attempted censoring of book selections by politicians with social agendas that conflict with academic freedom. I was moved by the most recent student demonstration and speeches against suppressing Fun Home, during which a female African-American student led a mixed group of black and white, straight and gay students. What most surprised and pleased me was how comfortable these students were with such interactions and hugs. It's no longer their grandfather's College of Charleston.

I've been involved with many protests by atheists and humanists, so I was struck by how religion went unmentioned when students criticized homophobic and racist legislators. They were simply saying that bad behavior is bad behavior, whatever the motivation. And that's fine with me.

Because of all the publicity, Fun Home author Alison Bechdel and members of the original off-Broadway cast performed a special concert of the musical at the College of Charleston. There were enthusiastic standing ovations not only for the quality of the performance, but also for the cast's extraordinary support of academic freedom at the College. And where else could we see Broadway-caliber talent for only $15?

Finally, lest you think that South Carolina politicians restrict their ignorance and bigotry to academics, here are just four of many recent examples where they have unintentionally-but-regularly provided punch lines for comedians.

1. Since 47 other states have an official state fossil, an 8-year old South Carolina girl did some research and asked that the woolly mammoth be declared the state fossil of South Carolina. That seemingly innocent request troubled some of our equally fossilized legislators. After much debate, an amended version inspired by Genesis passed the South Carolina Senate, stating that the mammoth was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field. Too bad our legislators don't know as much science as informed 8-year olds do.

2. Ray Moore, a current candidate to replace Glenn McConnell as lieutenant governor, called for Christians to pull their children out of the "godless" and "pagan" public schools and place them in the promised land of Christian schools or home schooling. (In 2009 I debated Moore at the University of South Carolina on the question of whether the United States is a Christian nation.)

3. Republican State Sen. Katrina Shealy called for the resignation of Lillian Koller as Director of the Department of Social Services, while Republican Governor Nikki Haley supports Koller. When Shealy spread a rumor that Koller is an "outspoken atheist," Haley defended Koller by saying she is not an atheist, implying that they both consider atheists unfit for public office.

4. Mayor Bullard of the small town of Latta fired police chief Crystal Moore, a lesbian who had loyally served on the force for 23 years. Bullard said that he would rather have a drunkard look after his children than an openly gay individual.

Many progressive and engaged College of Charleston students are questioning the custom of continuing to believe and do what has always been believed and done. I hope some of them will one day enter South Carolina politics. They've had an abundance of role models who have demonstrated how not to behave in office.

In the meantime, I look forward to the day when President-elect McConnell, state legislators, and students can read a soon-to-be-written book (I hope) titled "Lesbians of the Confederacy." Any budding authors out there?