Less than a year after Charleston Mayor Joe Riley convened a series of private meetings to discuss the possibility of merging the College of Charleston with the Medical University of South Carolina, state lawmakers have filed legislation to accomplish just that.
Despite strong hesitation expressed by some MUSC leaders, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, filed the "Charleston University Act" on Thursday morning in the S.C. House of Representatives.
It would merge the College of Charleston, MUSC and the Medical University Hospital Authority to create a comprehensive research university in Charleston.
Speaker Bobby Harrell is co-sponsoring the bill.
"If you look at major cities across the country, most of those cities have a comprehensive research university in their area," Harrell said. "Boeing or Blackbaud or any number of companies that are in the Lowcountry - they need the resources of comprehensive research university."
The bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration.
"This proposal is a response to business demands in the Lowcountry to create a workforce to match our growing economy," Merrill and Stavrinakis said in a joint statement. "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 bill proposes that a plan to merge the institutions must be presented to the governor and the General Assembly by July 1, 2015.
After the merger, the College of Charleston would be renamed the "Charleston University George Street Campus." MUSC would be called the "Charleston University Medical Campus and the Hospital Authority."
"These schools exist to serve the needs of the state of South Carolina, and when those needs change, then the schools have to change," Stavrinakis told The Post and Courier. "It's clear that they can do more for the state as a conjoined entity in some form than they can do separately."
S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, a member of Gov. Nikki Haley's Cabinet, said in a press release that a comprehensive research university in this region "clearly makes sense." A spokeswoman from his office clarified later Thursday that Hitt does not support "any bill forcing a merger of the two institutions."
"An undertaking this large should come from collaboration of the two respective boards and their stakeholders, and we encourage those discussions," Hitt said through his spokeswoman.
Haley's office released a similar statement Thursday. "If the governing boards of these two institutions decide that it would be in their combined best interests to merge, then Governor Haley fully supports them exploring those options," Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said. "This shouldn't be something that is forced upon them. Efforts like this are successful when all parties are part of the process on the front end."
While the proposal to merge the schools has bipartisan support in Columbia, as well as endorsements from Riley and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, it's less popular among leaders at MUSC.
A working committee that includes representatives from the College of Charleston and MUSC has been meeting to discuss the issue for months.
MUSC Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Stephenson has repeatedly expressed deep concerns about merging the institutions.
"I do not believe any synergies are involved in merging the two institutions and, in fact, believe it will cost many millions of dollars," Stephenson said Thursday. "I also believe it will divert MUSC from its three primary missions: providing great medical education, engaging in medical research and providing great clinical care for the citizens of South Carolina."
He said it will also interfere with the board's responsibility to hire a new president and construct a new women and children's hospital. The MUSC Board of Trustees is expected to discuss the bill at a meeting in Charleston next week.
"I realize, and the board realizes that the Legislature has the final say on this," Stephenson said. "I do expect that our board will let their thoughts be known after our board meeting."
Merrill and Stavrinakis said Thursday that MUSC Board of Trustees members, who are appointed by the Legislature, have presented considerable roadblocks in the ongoing discussion to merge the schools.
"There's no question that the leadership at the College (of Charleston) has been more open-minded and been willing to discuss all options," Stavrinakis said.
The vast majority of local residents favor the idea, Merrill said.
"We have to do what is best for both the state and the Lowcountry. Some of (the MUSC board members) are far more parochial in their view, but when it's all said and done, they are a subdivision of the state."
Merrill could not estimate how much it would cost to complete the merger.
"(MUSC) is one of the great medical universities in our country," Riley said. "I understand their cautionary approach, but ... the worry that this in any way would harm or change the quality of the medical university is unfounded."
A statement released by the College of Charleston Thursday said its Board of Trustees has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the legislation.
"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," according to the statement.
Benson will step down as president and return to the classroom as a professor in the college's School of Business effective June 30.
The College of Charleston board and MUSC board are conducting separate searches for new presidents. Ray Greenberg stepped down as MUSC president last year.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.