Lawmakers, school administrators and civic leaders have been whispering about the idea for years.

Letter from College of Charleston President George Benson

The following email was sent to College of Charleston faculty, students, alumni, parents and more Monday at 6:20 p.m.:

Dear Faculty, Staff, Alumni, Students, Parents and Friends:

Today there are reports in local media regarding the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina. I'm writing to provide you with some additional background and context for these reports.

As you know, the College and MUSC already enjoy a very collegial and cooperative relationship. Students, staff, and faculty at both institutions are engaged in a variety of joint initiatives and academic activities that benefit both our campuses and enrich our entire community. MUSC President Ray Greenberg and I have met quarterly for many years for the purpose of continuing to grow and strengthen the collaboration between our universities.

Recently, a small committee from both the College and MUSC met to discuss the possibility of increased collaboration between our two institutions. In addition, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley recently convened several meetings of local community leaders to discuss Charleston's need for a comprehensive research university to support the city's continued development and growth.  The College and MUSC were represented at the meetings called by Mayor Riley.

In any discussions of collaboration between the College and MUSC, it's natural that the concept of a merger would be one consideration. There have been at least two serious studies of merger in recent decades — one in the early 1980s and another in the late 1990s. While neither of these efforts resulted in a merger of the institutions, both discussions produced outcomes that helped improve collaboration between the College and MUSC.

I want to be clear that the current discussions are preliminary. Any serious consideration of a merger would require careful and significant study, as well as opportunities for all of our stakeholders to provide input.

Please know that a primary motivation for these discussions is to ensure that the College we all know and love is strongly positioned for the future, consistent with the values and priorities of our strategic plan and our commitment to serving the Charleston community.

I will keep you informed of the progress on these issues over the coming months.

Warm regards,

George Benson

Should the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina merge? How would that work? What would the “University of Charleston” look like?

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley had these questions in mind when he held a series of three meetings last week. Seventy-two stakeholders, including top administrators at both schools and members of the business community, attended.

“The response was overwhelming and extremely positive,” Riley said. “People were very enthusiastic. It's like the light bulb went off.”

It may be a decades-old idea, but there is a new sense of urgency to make it happen, Riley said. Charleston needs a comprehensive research university with undergraduate, graduate and doctorate-level programs to realize its economic potential and compete for new business with other research-rich regions around the country, such as North Carolina's Research Triangle and Austin, Texas.

“It moved from a nice thing to have to an imperative,” he said.

It's far from certain what the final product of a merger would resemble. MUSC President Ray Greenberg attended two of the mayor's meetings last week and said the broader context of the discussion was the “future economic competitiveness and vitality” of Charleston.

A comprehensive research university is a key part of that, he said, but there are ways short of fully merging the College of Charleston and MUSC to achieve it.

“People need to have a broad understanding of ways to get the next level,” Greenberg said.

He cited a collaboration between Indiana University and Purdue University. Both institutions retain their separate identities, but share a campus in Indianapolis and confer undergraduate and graduate degrees under both names in that city. He also mentioned the 2004 merger of the University of South Carolina and MUSC pharmacy schools.

“They have assets we're interested in. We have assets they're interested in,” said College of Charleston President George Benson.

The Citadel's graduate programs and the Charleston School of Law have assets to contribute to the evolving conversation too, Greenberg said.

“It's still at a very preliminary stage, but what I sense is there's a growing consensus,” he said. “We're not, in our current structure, reaching our full potential.”

A spokesman for the law school and a spokeswoman for The Citadel said administrators at those schools have not been involved in the merger discussion.

The decision to merge or not to merge will eventually be made by MUSC's and the College of Charleston's boards of trustees and, ultimately, the state Legislature, because both are public schools.

The medical university and the College of Charleston have formed a working committee to study the issue. Two board members from each institution, the provosts and the chief financial officers from both schools make up the group, which met once recently. Greenberg said he is not aware that any more meetings are scheduled before May graduation.

Peter Wertimer, an advertising executive and chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's military policy council, attended one of Riley's meetings last week. He said he was new to the idea of merging the Charleston schools.

“I had thought about it not at all. It was a complete surprise to me,” Wertimer said. “On the surface it seems like a wonderful idea, a symbiotic relationship.”

The College of Charleston, founded in 1770, enrolls about 10,000 undergraduates and 1,500 graduate students each year, but does not offer Ph.D. programs. The Medical University, founded in 1824, enrolls approximately 2,600 students in its six colleges, offering masters-level, doctorate and medical degrees in the health sciences only, but no undergraduate courses.

“The timing was never right before. The timing is right now,” Benson said. “All of the 20th century, we were basically a Navy town and tourist town. That was Charleston. With the Navy base being closed, that woke up the business community. All of a sudden now, we're developing this complex, diverse economy that we've never had before.”

The business community needs a major research university to support the emerging aerospace, digital media and biotech industries, he said.

“We're in the midst of a very serious economic transformation, the likes of which we have never seen before,” Benson said.

Riley emphasized that the meetings were intended to a begin a discussion — likely a long one.

“The more I've thought of it and talked to people about it, I'm confident it's what the Charleston region needs,” he said. “There's no timeline, no blueprint about exactly what it would look like.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.