While a push is on in political, economic and educational circles to build a research university in Charleston by merging the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina, there’s still one small problem — MUSC still needs convincing.

Medical university leaders, who appear to hold the key to the deal, are dipping their toes into the water, but are far from ready for a full swim.

Informal discussions on merging the two schools have been taking place for years, but the movement has gained steam in recent months.

The ramped-up pace of those discussions is fueled by a robust Lowcountry economy — stoked largely by the opening of Boeing South Carolina — and the need for graduate-level programs to meet the demands of new employers. The state currently prohibits the College of Charleston from offering doctoral and certain other programs because it is not a research university.

MUSC resistance

Representatives from the two schools and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce been have meeting to define what such a merger, or at least an increased collaboration, might look like. Also, Lowcountry legislators have drafted a merger bill they might file in the upcoming session.

Conyers O’Bryan, a member of the MUSC Board of Trustees from Florence, who is part of that working group, said medical school leaders are not on board with the idea of a full-blown merger.

“Merger is out, but collaboration is absolutely in,” O’Bryan said. “You cannot take an apple and an orange and make a pineapple. It doesn’t work.”

O’Bryan said he can’t predict what the Legislature will do next year, but said quick action on the issue won’t benefit either school.

MUSC President Ray Greenberg stressed that the process to potentially merge the schools should not be rushed.

“They’re very different institutions, different cultures, different ways in which they operate and you don’t just slap two different entities together,” said Greenberg, who will leave MUSC next month for a new job in Texas.

“Both of these institutions have been around for a very long time and so I don’t think it’s an urgent issue,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s something that, I think, really for the sake of Charleston and the economy of South Carolina, it’s something that should not be put on the back burner, should not be ignored going forward. I think it should be done in a deliberative, evaluative way.”

A ‘territory-grab’

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said he and Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, are working on a bill that they might file in the upcoming legislative session if the merger gains the support of both schools and the business community. “It’s certainly a possibility it will be filed,” he said.

“The economy in Charleston is changing and we need a full-blown research university here,” he said.

A comprehensive research university, such as the University of South Carolina or Clemson University, would offer education programs from the undergraduate through the doctoral level, as well as research opportunities for faculty.

“Clemson and the University of South Carolina are expanding here to meet the growing needs,” Stavrinakis said. It’s preferable that local campuses meet the need as best they can.”

Companies like Boeing are transforming the local community, he said. “I don’t want them to look outside the region to find people to fill jobs.”

Stavrinakis, whose brother Michael was recently appointed by the Legislature to the MUSC Board of Trustees, also said that he and Merrill will wait to file legislation until the two schools and the community evaluate the possibility of a merger or increased collaboration. “We want both schools and business leaders to feel good about this. That’s why we’re being patient.”

Merrill said Charleston-area schools need to be able to offer the programs the region needs, especially graduate programs. But that can’t happen now because the Lowcountry doesn’t have a comprehensive research university.

Other state universities are stepping in to fill the void, he said.

“It’s become a territory-grab by Clemson and Carolina,” he said. “They all see the Lowcountry as fertile ground,”

The University of South Carolina and Clemson University are putting pressure on legislators to allow their schools to expand into the Lowcountry, Merrill said, so Charleston-area schools need to act soon. If they can form a research university, they could launch the kind of graduate programs the Lowcountry needs. Many of those programs would be offered through the College of Charleston, Merrill said. “A merger would benefit the College of Charleston more than MUSC,” he said, “but it would benefit MUSC, too.”

Upstate Rep. Phil Owens, an Easley Republican and chairman of the House committee on Education and Public Works, said the possible merger was “news to me.” He’s not sure where he stands on the issue, or what the reaction might be from USC and Clemson supporters.

But, he said, MUSC is a research institution and likely would have to take the lead in pitching the idea to the state’s other research universities. “If MUSC can demonstrate how this would benefit the state, I think Clemson and USC would be amenable,” Owens said.

A hamstrung school

College of Charleston Provost George Hynd and Steve Osborne, the school’s chief financial officer, sent a letter this month to faculty and staff members about a possible merger or formalized collaboration between the college and MUSC. A team made up of representatives from both schools will research similar mergers to learn more about what has been effective, the letter stated. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce will explore the economic impact of such mergers.

The college will convene forums and workshops on the possible merger in the near future to gather input on the plan, the letter stated.

College of Charleston President George Benson said “the economy is exploding around us and (business leaders) want more from the College of Charleston and higher education in general.”

He said MUSC leaders might be reluctant to support a full-blown merger, but he thinks there are ways the two schools could be “knitted together” in a way that would benefit them.

Just good business

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, said he doesn’t know how deep the collaboration will go, but he’s certain the Lowcountry needs more graduate programs. “Whatever would make that happen, I’m totally in favor of doing,” he said.

Mary Graham, senior vice president for business advocacy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said her group is working with the schools to explore the possibility of a merger.

“What we hear from employers is that we have gaps in education in our community and we need to learn how to fill those gaps,” she said. The region especially has a shortage of training programs in engineering and computer technology and programming. In those areas, she said, “we don’t have the ability to meet the needs of the employers.”

Her group promotes economic development, she said. But one of the big gaps in doing that is the lack of a comprehensive research university. “It’s a major gap we have to fill.”