School of Law means big money, but lawmakers not buying

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, jointly filed a bill Thursday that would merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.

If MUSC and the College of Charleston merge, maybe they can call their football team the Cantore-crashing Cardiologists.

Heartstopping - and starting - action on the gridiron.

But you know what some local officials think this proposed "Charleston University" needs even more than college football?

A law school. And they have just the one ...

Several state lawmakers, and even Mayor Joe Riley, have raised questions about the pending sale of the Charleston School of Law to InfiLaw, which operates three other for-profit law schools.

A law school owned by judges and lawyers is one thing, but to have it part of a hedge fund portfolio? Well, they think that's not good for Charleston.

These folks have expressed their concerns to the state Commission on Higher Education, which has to give InfiLaw a license to operate a law school in South Carolina.

If the application is denied, the whole deal is bust.

The problem is that C of C is not a guaranteed back-up. Many legislators are loath to take on another institute of higher learning since they can't pay for the ones they have now.

So if the InfiLaw deal falls through, the law school's future could be in jeopardy.

And a new study says the Lowcountry has 42 million reasons to hope it doesn't come to that.

A big impact

College of Charleston economics professor Frank Hefner has just finished a study of the Charleston School of Law's economic impact on the Lowcountry.

Hefner, who has done similar studies for other local institutions, says the school has a $41.7 million annual impact on the tri-county area.

These studies are pretty complicated, but basically it says the school and its students support about 400 jobs and generate $15.5 million in income.

State and local coffers see just about $2 million in tax revenue every year. The school's direct spending of $16.3 million has a local impact of nearly $30 million.

"The way the impact model works, in general, is to answer the question of what would happen if that activity disappeared," Hefner says. "This is what the School of Law contributes."

Hefner says it's not apples to apples to compare one economic impact study with another, so take this with a grain of salt: The last economic impact study of the College of Charleston came up with $542 million.

But the School of Law has only a fraction of the students and faculty, and no sports teams, which make a big difference.

Still, $42 million is a nut that would be noticed if it were missing. It would be akin to losing most of Spoleto, or two-thirds of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.

And the city would freak if that happened.

Money maker?

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, co-author of the MUSC/ C of C merger bill, is one of those people concerned with InfiLaw running a law school in Charleston.

This, he says, has to do with InfiLaw's business model, and nothing to do with any hope he has of seeing the law school become part of C of C.

"They are two separate questions," Stavrinakis says.

He's right. But they are getting stirred up together.

This week outgoing C of C President George Benson spoke to lawmakers on state Rep. Chip Limehouse's higher education subcommittee about the proposed MUSC/college merger. Benson mentioned the law school would be a great fit for C of C. It's a money-maker, he said.

Limehouse, however, says he doesn't sense much support for such an acquisition in the General Assembly. Most folks think one law school in South Carolina is enough, and many of those folks are USC law school alumni.

"If it was to happen at no cost, that would be one thing," Limehouse says, "but we can't afford the higher education we've got."

That's true. State support of colleges and universities has been dropping like a rock, and the schools have done themselves no favor by constantly expanding their missions. Like adding medical or law programs.

Limehouse says he's glad the School of Law is in Charleston, and hopes it stays.

It's good for the community, he says, and this economic impact study backs that up.

The question that remains is whether it's good for the College of Charleston.

And the jury's still out.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

Comments { }

Postandcourier.com is pleased to offer readers the enhanced ability to comment on stories. We expect our readers to engage in lively, yet civil discourse. Postandcourier.com does not edit user submitted statements and we cannot promise that readers will not occasionally find offensive or inaccurate comments posted in the comments area. Responsibility for the statements posted lies with the person submitting the comment, not postandcourier.com. If you find a comment that is objectionable, please click "report abuse" and we will review it for possible removal. Please be reminded, however, that in accordance with our Terms of Use and federal law, we are under no obligation to remove any third party comments posted on our website. Read our full Terms and Conditions.