COLUMBIA - While the future of a potential merger between the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina appears to be in the hands of six state House members, one of the state's most influential politicians says the move is unnecessary and unlikely to happen this year.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a finalist for the C of C presidency and an alumnus, said the college can expand its offerings without needing to merge with the medical university.
"I know this process well enough," said the former Senate president pro tem. "It's going to take some deliberation and some study."
Lawmakers say that if the six-member committee can come up with a plan, it could influence other legislators and pave the way for a deal in future years to create the Lowcountry's first comprehensive research university.
In comments last month at a Charleston Chamber of Commerce event in Columbia, McConnell said that a legislative tweak to allow the College of Charleston to expand its offerings would be more prudent than merging the two schools. "I don't want to lose the identity of the College of Charleston," he said.
McConnell is one of three candidates for the presidency. The other two are University of West Florida provost Martha Saunders, and businessman and alumnus Dennis Encarnation.
Reps. Jim Merrill, Leon Stavrinakis, Kenny Bingham, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Mike Anthony and Chip Limehouse were appointed by Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, to serve on a panel that will consider the merger of the two schools. Republican Merrill and Democrat Stavrinakis, both of Charleston, filed the merger bill last month. They say the region needs a comprehensive research university to attract and retain businesses and train the next generation of South Carolina's workforce.
"We are the only region in the state that does not have one," Merrill said.
The committee has two members on each side of the debate and two considered to be in the middle. Merrill and Stavrinakis have argued for the merger while Bingham, R-Cayce, and Limehouse, R-Charleston, said they are opposed to it. As Limehouse put his view on bringing together two very different places, "I don't know that flip-flops and white coats go together."
Cobb-Hunter said she doesn't have a position on the issue. She said she and Anthony might serve as mediators between the two sides. Anthony, D-Union, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a social worker, said her work skills may come in handy on the committee. "I'll kind of do a lot of social work-type things with all the testosterone flowing," she said. She said she will go into the talks with a lot of questions.
"My hope is this is not something that's rushed into," Cobb-Hunter said. "I'm looking forward to exploring this issue from all angles."
Rep. Mike Sottile, R-Isle of Palms, removed his name as a co-sponsor of the bill recently. "The main reason is I feel like I need more information," Sottile said. "I'm hearing from constituents, I'm hearing from alumni. There are more that don't want it than those that do.
"It doesn't mean I'm not going to support it. I just need to get some more information on it, some more detail, how it's going to work."
Sottile said hashing out all of the details and voting on the merger bill may be hard to do before the legislative session ends in June. But he thinks that if the committee emerges with a report or consensus on how to move forward, it will be influential with other lawmakers.
"I think it's going to carry a lot of weight," he said.
The committee plans to hold hearings and solicit feedback. They will likely get an earful from both MUSC and the College of Charleston, where faculty and other leaders have expressed opposition.
On Friday, College of Charleston faculty members began circulating a 12-page position paper on why the merger is a bad idea. In it, they argue that becoming a large research university would shift the faculty's priorities from teaching undergraduates to securing grants, among other issues.
Getting funding for research and studies may also be more difficult. "Then we're competing with the Harvards and the Stanfords and were not going to be able to compete at that level," said Robert Mignone, a College of Charleston mathematics professor.
A recent internal poll of C of C faculty indicated that about 80 percent oppose a merger of the two schools, he said.
"Honestly, I think (a comprehensive research university) would be good for the Lowcountry," Mignone said. "But you've got to do that from the ground up. I don't think waving a magic wand ... is going to make that happen."
The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.