A proposed bill to merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina has ignited passions on both sides of the issue.
No one yet knows the fate of the "Charleston University Act." Here are some of the basics.
Question: Who wants a merger, and who stands to gain from it?
Answer: Some state legislators, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and outgoing College of Charleston President George Benson strongly support the merger. They say a research university would better align the institutions with state and regional business needs.
State Reps. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, have said the proposal is a "response to business demands in the Lowcountry to create a workforce to match our growing economy."
The Chamber released a paper in November supporting the merger on behalf of the region's business community, which mirrored the legislators' position.
Benson is an outspoken advocate of the merger. He has a business background, and thinks the college should be allowed to offer more master's and doctoral programs directly related to the region's economic development needs.
The school can't offer doctoral programs now because it's not one of the state's research universities, but that would change if the merger goes through.
Benson, who will step down in June, has said the local economy is robust and likely will continue to grow, largely due to Boeing Co. opening its plane-building facilities in North Charleston. "We're red-hot," he said of Charleston. "The city is now on the same radar screen as Austin, Texas, the (North Carolina) Research Triangle and Boston, but they are higher on the screen," he said. "We need a research university to get there."
Benson also said the college in the past was "inward looking," but a strategic plan the school's board approved in 2009 was meant to change that at least in part by making the school more integral to the state and regional economy.
The college's board has not yet discussed the merger. The group's next meeting is March 20-21.
Q: Who are the opponents, and what do they say about the idea?
A: The most vocal opponent of the proposal has been MUSC Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Stephenson.
Stephenson has repeatedly said that there are few, if any, synergies between the college and the medical university, and that simply merging the schools does not necessarily create new graduate degree programs in technology and sciences that the local economy says it needs.
He also said the merger would likely cost many millions of dollars, and that the proposal already has begun to interfere with the board's search for a new MUSC president. Instead of a merger, MUSC needs to focus on raising millions of dollars to construct a new women's and children's hospital, Stephenson said.
MUSC's Board of Trustees passed a resolution Thursday echoing Stephenson's concerns. Every board member who voted was in favor of the resolution; member Michael Stavrinakis abstained because his brother, Leon Stavrinakis, filed the bill in the S.C. House of Representatives.
While College of Charleston leaders have been less reluctant than MUSC administrators to discuss a merger, faculty members at both schools have expressed unease about the proposal, citing the different, separate cultures of the schools.
Public opinion polls conducted at both schools show that students and staff are largely opposed to a merger too.
Q: What would the structure of Charleston University look like?
A: The governing structure of the schools would change under the proposed merger.
The schools and the hospital authority currently are governed by separate boards of trustees. A temporary board made up of members from each board would hash out details of the merger until the General Assembly could appoint a 23-member board of trustees for Charleston University.
The bill specifies that the seats on the new board must represent various congressional districts in South Carolina, an alumnus from the College of Charleston and several health professionals. The governor also would hold a seat on the board, or could appoint his or her designee, and would be granted authority to name an at-large representative.
Members of the new board would hold four-year terms.
The new board would eventually hire a president to run Charleston University. The bill specifies that the president would appoint chancellors to oversee the college and MUSC.
Q: How much would the merger cost, and are there any long-term cost savings?
A: A fiscal impact study has not been conducted, but will be required before a vote is taken in the General Assembly. Leon Stavrinakis and Merrill say it's nearly impossible to gauge how much a merger would cost, but both say the plan could eventually save taxpayers money as the two institutions begin to share resources and consolidate administrative costs.
Q: Has this been done before?
A: Yes. A working group that includes representatives from MUSC and the College of Charleston published a white paper on the proposal to merge the schools last year, and cited examples of other schools that have merged, including Rutgers University and University of Medicine and Dentistry New Jersey, as well as the University of Toledo and the Medical University of Ohio.
The working group also suggested studying a collaboration between Indiana University-Purdue and the University of Indianapolis. Both institutions retain their separate identities but share a campus in Indianapolis and offer undergraduate and graduate degrees under both names.
Q: Would Charleston University have a football team?
A: Probably not. The bill state legislators filed last week doesn't mention a football team. If the merger goes through and the university wants a football team in the future, it would have to complete a long, complex and expensive process.
Q: Why do lawmakers want to change the schools' names?
A: While the proposed law suggests that the College of Charleston become the "Charleston University George Street Campus" and that MUSC become the "Charleston University Medical Campus and the Hospital Authority," Leon Stavrinakis said those names likely will change as the bill evolves.
"One of the first things we need to do is to assure people that those aren't intended to be permanent name changes," he said.
Stavrinakis envisions that MUSC would continue to be called MUSC and the College of Charleston would continue to be called by its own name, even if they eventually merge into one Charleston University. Even the name "Charleston University" isn't set in stone, he said.
These names are intended to be used only as "reference points," he said, and should not be considered final.
Q: Why not include The Citadel or the Charleston School of Law in the proposal?
A: Leaders at The Citadel have not expressed interest in the plan during early talks. And the school's blend of academic and military training would make it difficult to merge with other institutions.
The College of Charleston's Benson has expressed interest in the private law school becoming part of the college, but some state legislators are reluctant to bring a second law school into the state's public higher education system. The University of South Carolina has a law school in Columbia.
Q: How does the proposed merger affect the presidential searches at both schools?
A: It's unclear, but it could make it more difficult to hire top candidates, who might be reluctant to step into a job where they essentially could be demoted from president to chancellor.
Leaders at MUSC said last week that top applicants have withdrawn their names from consideration amid so much uncertainty.
Q: Will the bill pass?
A: While several Lowcountry legislators said they support the merger, Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he still is gathering information. He has received many emails voicing opposition, he said, but he also has talked to members of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce who support it.
He's not sure how legislators from other parts of the state will respond to the proposal, he said. "I don't think they're tuned in yet. It's kind of a Lowcountry thing."
Rep. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he also needs more information. "Ultimately, the full Legislature will speak to the merger," he said. "We're going to ask a lot of questions."
Leon Stavrinakis said he knows of only one legislator who has indicated that he would not support the bill, but he would not disclose the lawmaker's name.
Stavrinakis also said he would not have introduced the legislation if he thought it was unlikely to pass. Gov. Nikki Haley has been cautious in her statements about the proposal. "This shouldn't be something that is forced upon them," her spokesman recently said.
Q: What are the next legislative steps?
A: The bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration.
It must pass the S.C. House of Representative, the S.C. Senate and be signed by Haley to become law. Some lawmakers and lobbyists believe that's an ambitious schedule for the bill during the second year of a two-year legislative session. If the bill does not become law by the end of the session this June, it dies. In that case, another merger bill could be filed next year.
Many students, faculty and board members at the Medical University of South Carolia are opposed to a merger with the College of Charleston. They say the merger wouldn’t benefit the downtown medical university, and that pursuing it now would make it tough to land a top candidate in the school’s search for a new president.×
Many College of Charleston students and faculty members are concerned that a merger with the Medical University of South Carolina would damage the unique character of the school.×