It is often amazing how quickly misinformation and rumor can spread in this age of blogs, tweets, emails and Internet messaging. The recently filed bill proposing a union of the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston is one such situation.
Initiating legislative action creates a process and procedure that insures critical access to research, public input, and healthy debate. The process of creating a Lowcountry- based comprehensive research university began decades ago through discussion with the business community, educators, public officials and faculty. A formal dialogue involving the schools and local leaders began approximately a year ago.
With the well-known recruitment of Boeing, and the expansion or relocation to the Lowcountry of other technology driven industries, our community is realizing a transformation from a job market based on the military and service industry to one that requires emphasis and expertise in technology. A better-educated and trained worker is the only candidate with a chance at these new jobs.
The simple truth is that we are far behind with providing the necessary employee pool that is currently needed - much less what will soon be required. Approving incentives to lure companies like Boeing and facilitating the expansion of an Information Technology (IT) in the Lowcountry are huge achievements. The next step, however, is making sure local higher ed institutions can produce a workforce capable of filling those jobs. Otherwise, the positions are filled by eager job seekers recruited from elsewhere.
In addition to economic realities, there are serious concerns about the ability of both MUSC and the C of C to maintain their respective positions of prominence in the face of public school encroachment into the Charleston region and increasing competition for limited state resources. The higher education needs of the Lowcountry will be met by other institutions if we do not give our local schools the necessary tools to meet those demands. That scenario is currently unfolding before our very eyes. Continued expansion into the Charleston area by other state schools gobbles up limited resources and marginalizes our local institutions.
Many people do not realize that the College of Charleston cannot offer degree programs above a Masters, or that MUSC is restricted to providing curriculums related to health and medicine. In contrast, the Upstate and the Midlands benefit greatly from the presence and synergy created between business and higher education due to the presence of comprehensive research universities - Clemson and the University of South Carolina, respectively. This situation leaves a tremendous void in our ability to attract and keep business and job opportunities. It also leaves too many local workers without the skills and qualifications needed to fill those jobs.
There are endless reasons for expanding the education offerings in our region. Studies indicate that despite ranking in the top 100 metro areas in the nation, the Charleston community falls in the bottom 20 percent in higher degree offerings due to the lack of a comprehensive research institution. That fact hurts recruitment, retention, expansion, investment, opportunity and quality of life for both employees and business.
Once we acknowledge that a comprehensive research university is a necessity for our future, it is vital to also consider the regional, political and higher education realities that exist in South Carolina.
There are essentially four alternative ways to establish a comprehensive research university: by creating a new university from scratch; through expanding the College of Charleston's current designation; by widening MUSC's existing research university designation; or by combining the existing assets and growing as needed.
The first idea, to begin a new university, is a non-starter for financial, logistical and reasons closely aligned with utilizing one's common sense.
The second method, which is to expand the College of Charleston and turn it into a research university, is certainly an option with which we are personally amenable. However, our experience indicates that having the resultant two research universities in the Lowcountry (MUSC and the expanded C of C) would be flatly opposed by other regions of the state. Politicians fear that too much emphasis, funding and power would consolidate in this region, and the existing research universities would oppose the creation of a fourth entity that competes for limited resources.
The third option would result in wasteful overlap and duplicate many programs at MUSC that already exist at the College of Charleston. It would also require a massive capital building program on the Charleston peninsula. For obvious reasons, this makes little sense.
Thus, the fourth option - consolidating the existing assets of MUSC and the College of Charleston - is the most efficient and realistic means for achieving the desired goal.
The details of such an undertaking are difficult and very important. For over a year we have engaged the stakeholders in an attempt to find a common path that protects the individuality and uniqueness of our local institutions; while answering our pressing business, community and educational needs.
For the most part, this effort has been successful. However, some board and faculty members chose the alternative route of drawing a line in the sand and refusing to engage in even the discussion of a merger.
It became clear that parochial interests (like retaining board seats or perceived influence) were negating the betterment of the whole and that the best way to obtain information and objective research would be through the committee process. That is why our legislation was filed.
We are under no illusion that the bill we submitted will be the final version. It is an extremely rare circumstance for legislation to pass without being amended or changed. In fact, items like college names and board makeup were included mostly for the benefit of staff as a working document and not a final recommendation. These are details that should, and will, be addressed.
To be clear, we are not looking to eliminate, undermine or diminish the College of Charleston name or its nationally prominent liberal arts program. Similarly, we are not looking to eliminate, undermine or diminish the nationally acclaimed research, teaching and treatment that occurs daily at MUSC; nor the acclaimed brands that are the College of Charleston, MUSC or MUSC Health.
To the contrary, we view these programs, their staffs, employees and the other resources associated with them as the foundational elements of a combined entity from around which to build.
What will now happen is the committee chairs will assign the legislation to a sub or ad hoc committee. Hearings can be held, information can be gathered, concerns of students, faculty, administrators and citizens can be heard and productive changes can be made. Public forums can be scheduled and ideas can be incorporated so that a working document and proposal can be improved and perfected - or if necessary, even dismissed.
It is our desire that a union can be accomplished with little or no change to the mission, identity and reputation of these tremendous institutions. What we would like to accomplish is a "merger" primarily of designation that includes a president and combined board; but allows for chancellors (presidents) of each college to operate their unique colleges independently. Our goal is to take what is great about these two schools and build around those assets.
A union would allow for dramatically increased educational opportunity; cost efficiencies where practical (the campuses ARE within blocks of one another), synergy with the local business community and better funding potential. Amazingly, a recent report illustrated that the two institutions already share numerous faculty, students and other assets.
Clearly, there will be opposition regardless of what rationale is put forth. But the simple truth is that change is never readily embraced. Those who have different agendas will continue to obfuscate and parse words.
Yet it is our duty and obligation to view issues from a macro perspective and with a wider lens than those who refuse to even consider the alternative. Part of our job as elected officials is to survey needs for present and the future and to adequately plan to meet those public needs. However, as those public needs change - and they are changing as quickly as the Lowcountry where we were raised - our local institutions must also adapt to meet those new needs.
We have both fought for years in the Legislature to meet the needs of MUSC and the College of Charleston (Leon's alma mater). We pledge to continue this directive while fully protecting the history, mission and integrity of these two amazing Lowcountry institutions.
Leon Stravrinakis, a Democrat, represents District 119 (Charleston County) in the S.C. House. Jim Merrill, a Republican, represents District 99 (Berkeley and Charleston counties).
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