The president of the College of Charleston and the chairman of the board of trustees at the Medical University of South Carolina were two of the driving forces behind a recently introduced bill to merge the two institutions, according to one of the legislators who filed the bill.
George Benson, the outgoing College of Charleston leader, still supports the idea. The other, MUSC Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Stephenson, strongly opposes the merger and disputes a claim by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, that he pushed for a bill.
Stavrinakis, with Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, filed the "Charleston University Act" in the S.C. House of Representatives on Feb. 6. It would merge the College of Charleston and MUSC by July 1, 2016. House Speaker Bobby Harrell co-sponsored the legislation.
Since it was introduced, most of the faculty and students at both schools and the MUSC Board of Trustees have expressed opposition to the plan. They say it will cost millions of dollars to accomplish a merger and that the legislation could sabotage each school's unique culture and reputation.
"We began looking at (a draft bill) and, pretty quickly, we concluded that was not the proper route to go, that it would not benefit MUSC," Stephenson said.
Stavrinakis said he initially counted Stephenson among proponents for a merger. Stephenson was actually the first person who called for draft legislation to merge the schools last spring, Stavrinakis said, so that MUSC board members could seriously consider the idea.
"We talked on the way to Columbia," Stavrinakis said. "He said he was having a real problem even getting these people (on the Board of Trustees) to pay attention."
Stavrinakis said he told Stephenson he wasn't ready to introduce legislation. He said it felt "weird and risky" to draft a bill so early in the discussion.
But Stephenson insisted, Stavrinakis said. "His quote to me was, 'If you just give me something to show them, I think they may take it more seriously.' That's exactly what he told me."
Stavrinakis said his staff produced a draft bill and sent it to Stephenson.
"I did not ever hear back from him about that draft, about how it went with the board. Tom just kind of disappeared, at least from my perspective, from being an active participant," he said.
Stephenson recalls the same conversation, but denies that he specifically asked Stavrinakis to draft a bill.
"I certainly may have said, 'Can I see the draft bill?' " Stephenson said. "I didn't ask him to draft a bill."
That draft was never filed in the General Assembly, and Stephenson said he has not compared it with the bill that was filed on Feb. 6. Stavrinakis said last year's draft is completely different than the actual bill.
"To me, it doesn't matter," Stephenson said. "MUSC did not start this. To me, that was the implication."
Stavrinakis said Benson, who will step down in June, originally approached him with the idea to merge the schools. Leaders at MUSC, including former President Ray Greenberg, were initially supportive of it, he said.
"Jim (Merrill) and I weren't meeting in back rooms hatching ideas about how to take over MUSC and the College of Charleston," Stavrinakis said.
The "Charleston University Act" has been referred to the House Ways and Means committee for consideration.
In a commentary published in Monday's Post and Courier, Stavrinakis and Merrill explained that the bill will be assigned to a legislative sub-committee or an ad hoc committee for discussion.
While the bill moves forward in the Legislature, behind-the-scenes negotiations have recently deteriorated. A small meeting tentatively set for Tuesday night in Columbia has been organized for lawmakers and school leaders to privately discuss the bill, but it was unclear, even on Monday afternoon, if that meeting would actually take place or who would attend.
"We've tried to sit down. We've asked the various sides to come together. Ninety percent want to explore the option, but 10 percent is holding us up," Merrill said.
A majority of MUSC board members would not be present at the meeting, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting. If plans to hold it move forward, it will be private and will fall outside the definition of a public meeting under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
It is not clear who called the meeting, or where in Columbia it would take place.
Merrill said he was invited, but did not know if he would attend.
"I'm starting to get my back up a little bit," he said.
In separate interviews Monday, Merrill and Stavrinakis fought back against critics who say the bill was filed prematurely, without the blessing of either school.
"The only way we're going to be able to find out if this has merit is through legislative and the committee process," Merrill said. "I find it interesting that a board chairman from Greenville, which has a research university and a brand new med school, is telling the Lowcountry what we should and shouldn't do."
Stephenson, who lives in Greenville, declined to respond to Merrill's comment.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.
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