by Paul Bowers
Over mounting protests from both the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina, state lawmakers filed a bill today that would merge the two schools into a new institution called Charleston University.
In a press release, co-sponsors Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-Charleston) and Rep. Jim Merrill (R-Berkeley) describe the bill as "a response to business demands in the Lowcountry to create a workforce to match our growing economy." The bill has been sent to the House Ways and Means Committee, where the sponsors will be "asking to give the bill full consideration as soon as possible." The release continues:
"The bottom line is, this merger is long overdue — it is right for business; it is right for higher education; it is right for the Lowcountry; it is right for South Carolina; and it is our obligation as legislators to deliver."
MUSC Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Stephenson has expressed reservations about the proposed merger in recent months, saying he would favor closer collaboration over an all-out merger. And at CofC this week, a survey of over 400 faculty conducted by the Faculty Senate found that only 22 percent support a merger. A summary of survey responses says, "The faculty disfavor benefits of a merger with MUSC if it threatens the current mission, disfavor over-prioritizing the research mission, disfavor growth of the student body, and by a factor of 10 do not believe that funding would be adequate to support a research institution of high quality."
Currently, state law prohibits the College of Charleston from offering doctoral degrees, but a successful merger would make Charleston University a comprehensive research university, meaning doctoral programs would be allowed. At a faculty forum in September 2013, CofC Provost George Hynd said merging would allow the school to expand its offerings in areas including neuroscience, public health, biomedical and health informatics, biomedical imaging and physics, marine biology, psychiatry, and psychology.
This is not the first time CofC and MUSC have discussed working more closely. By Hynd's count, the two schools have had at least nine rounds of talks over the years, ranging from merger talks to the creation of the Lowcountry Graduate Center, a joint campus near North Charleston's Tanger Outlets that offers graduate programs and certificates.
Stavrinakis and Merrill's bill has picked up the support of House Speaker Bobby Harrell and S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt. In a press release, Hitt says:
"Business recruitment and expansion in the Charleston region is one of the many keys to continued economic growth here in South Carolina. One of the challenges we face right now is how to better align the needs of the business community with our talent pool. Any proposal to create a full-scale, comprehensive research university in this region clearly makes sense for businesses in Charleston and across South Carolina."---
UPDATE: CofC spokesman Mike Robertson gave the following statement on the merger proposal:
The College of Charleston Board of Trustees has not yet had the opportunity to discuss H. 4632, a bill that has been introduced in the South Carolina General Assembly to merge the College with the Medical University of South Carolina.
The Board of Trustees welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with the General Assembly and all its stakeholders to discuss how we can work together to meet the higher education needs of South Carolina.
For the past 18 months, President George Benson has publicly supported the merger of these two great universities. In taking this position, President Benson has spoken only for himself, and not on behalf of the College.