State lawmakers file bill to merge MUSC, College of Charleston

By Ashley Barker
abarker@scbiznews.com
Published Feb. 6, 2014

A bill was introduced this morning in the S.C. House of Representatives that would merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina, including the Medical University Hospital Authority.

The bill, H 4632, calls for the creation of Charleston University before July 1, 2016. It says the current college campus would be known as the “Charleston University George Street Campus” and the current university campus would be known as the “Charleston University Medical Campus.”

On July 1, 2014, a third board of trustees, consisting of members of current board members from CofC and MUSC, will be created to devise how the joint campus will run. The boards would consolidate into one decision-making entity in 2016.  

The bill was introduced by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, and Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. It had a first reading and was referred to the Committee on Ways and Means.

Rep. Leon Stavrinakis
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis
Rep. Jim Merrill
Rep. Jim Merrill
“The General Assembly finds that by merging the extraordinary assets and talents of the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina to form a full-scale comprehensive research university will enable Charleston to forever solidify its place as a leader in higher education and ensure its continued economic prosperity,” the bill said.

This bill didn’t pop up overnight, according to Stavrinakis. He said it’s been a year-long process of evaluating how to best position both schools to enhance and secure their positions in the future.

“These are state agencies, and they’re No. 1 priority is to best serve what South Carolina needs. It’s our obligation to push them in that direction,” Stavrinakis said.

He said working with a Republican on the bill was not difficult.

“We’re searching for things we can agree on for both schools, the quality of life in the Lowcountry and the job market,” Stavrinakis said.

He added that leaders at both schools were included in the discussions prior to the bill being drafted. He said most have been supportive but that some leaders have had “heart burn at the medical university” when talking about the merger.

Stavrinakis and Merrill issued a joint statement that said the proposal is in response to business demands in the Lowcountry to create a workforce that matches the growing economy.

“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,” the statement said.

S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt supports the proposal as well.

“Business recruitment and expansion in the Charleston region is one of the many keys to continued economic growth here in South Carolina,” Hitt said in a statement. “Any proposal to create a full-scale, comprehensive research university in this region clearly makes sense for businesses in Charleston and across South Carolina.”

CofC’s board of trustees has not discussed the bill, according to spokesman Mike Robertson.

“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,” Robertson said in a statement. “For the past 18 months, President George Benson has publicly supported the merger of these two great universities.”

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley issued a statement saying a comprehensive research and graduate-degree granting university is “essential for the future economic success of the Charleston region.”

“Having eventually Ph.D. programs in chemistry, physics, computer science, aeronautical engineering, perhaps a law school, and even more are the model for the future of a healthy, vibrant region,” Riley said in a statement. “This is an idea whose time has come.”

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce also supports the proposed merger. Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO of the chamber, said the merger will dramatically increase the region’s research and funding opportunities.

“A proactive and responsive development of a major comprehensive research university will provide increased undergraduate, graduate and advanced degree offerings to meet the current and growing demand for talent in engineering, IT and computer technologies,” Derreberry said in a statement.

Merger would create ‘Frankenstein monster’
The majority of faculty members at CofC do not support the possible merger with MUSC, according to a poll conducted by a group of faculty committee chairs at the college.

At least one faculty member also said members of the school’s board of trustees are “too focused on politics,” when they should be transparent in the presidential search process.

More than 400 faculty members responded to a survey (.pdf) in January about the college’s current mission, potential changes to the mission and future leadership, according to the survey’s executive summary (.pdf).

The survey found 57% of those polled do not support the college merging with MUSC, and 53% do not support the college moving toward becoming a research university. Additionally, 80% of those polled said they came to the college because of “its focus on offering a high-quality undergraduate liberal arts education,” and more than half do not want the institution expanding beyond its current number of enrolled students.

“While an institution must adapt to remain competitive, the general consensus of comments was that movement away from the liberal arts model undermines our strengths and makes us less competitive and less responsive to the needs of the local community, the state and the nation,” the summary said. “The successful merger of a historically liberal arts institution with a medial university has no precedent.”

More than 30% of those polled agreed that incorporating the college into a research university would “make me more likely to seek job opportunities elsewhere,” the poll said.

“Many comments reflect an overall conviction that building a third high-quality research institution is ‘clearly beyond the reach of South Carolina’ and that merging with MUSC would create ‘a Frankenstein monster consisting of an underfunded liberal arts college merged with a med school in the red,’ ” the summary said.

Lynn Cherry, speaker of the faculty, gave a short presentation recently to the board of trustees about the survey. She said because of the winter storm, the board was not given the information ahead of time to be able to “digest the information.”

“A couple told me afterwards that they found the information, at first glance, very informative, and they were pleased to get the information,” Cherry said.

She was surprised about faculty participation in the poll, which was significantly more than the number of faculty members who typically respond to surveys.

Cherry said there are other venues to consider before trying to merge.

“I think one of the things that is most important to recognize is that the College of Charleston and MUSC are two very, very different institutions,” she said. “They have very different kinds of missions. Their cultures are very different.”

Faculty wants a say in next president
More than 100 applications were submitted for the CofC presidency, which will be vacated by George Benson when he returns to the faculty on June 30.

Cherry said the survey came about after inaccurate reports were published about the presidential search.

“Last semester, there was an increasing sense of concern and frustration among faculty that it seemed like external voices were making proclamations and declarations, and the faculty hadn’t had the opportunity to weigh in,” she said.

Nearly all of the faculty polled agreed that for the institution to succeed, the new president and administrative team must take into account the aspirations of the current faculty. The poll revealed that 93% said it’s important that the new president has “extensive knowledge of and experience with challenges facing higher education.” Nearly 80% said he or she should have a “distinguished record of service in higher education.”

The college said in its presidential search profile that candidates who have worked outside of academe will be accepted and that they should have a record “consistent with appointment as a member of the College of Charleston faculty.”

Transparency and inclusiveness were topics included in the comments section of the survey.

“Many faculty view senior administration and the board of trustees as too focused on politics and outside voices and not in touch with faculty achievements and aspirations,” the summary said. “The comments affirm that without sufficient ‘buy-in’ from current faculty, ‘rolling the dice this way would be a disaster.’”

A spokeswoman for MUSC, which is also searching for a new president, said she is unaware of any formal faculty or leadership surveys conducted about the proposed merger or new president. She said the presidential search committee “continues to solicit faculty input and ideas.”

MUSC President Dr. Raymond Greenberg left the university in August to become executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System. The MUSC Presidential Search Committee will begin reviewing applications for Greenberg’s replacement in March and plans to have finalists meet faculty members and trustees by April 25.

Reach Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker.

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