A lot has been written recently about the potential for a merger of MUSC and the College of Charleston.
Unfortunately, the writing has generated more heat than light. It's important to direct the discussion back to the facts.
The MUSC Board of Trustees (BOT) is on record in favor of expanding undergraduate and graduate degree offerings to enhance economic development in the Lowcountry. To say that MUSC doesn't support local economic development is untrue, especially given our well-known economic impact within the community.
The BOT's recent vote in opposition to a forced merger of the College of Charleston (C of C) and MUSC was unanimous (with one Lowcountry abstention). Members of the BOT from the Upstate, Midlands and the Lowcountry are in agreement that a merger is not a logical first step to serve the Lowcountry business community's needs. This opinion reflected in the BOT vote is the result of nearly a year's worth of collaborative effort by C of C and MUSC board members, faculty and staff to assess the need for advanced degrees and provide a roadmap toward delivering them. The assessment accounted for the characteristics of post-secondary education organizations in the Lowcountry and throughout the state.
It is true that a majority of the MUSC BOT believes that a merger of C of C and MUSC would not be good for either school, having spent considerable time and money assessing the "value added" by combinations of public universities and colleges across the nation. In 2006 we merged one MUSC college with the University of South Carolina, so our BOT speaks not just from theory but from experience. In investigating similar mergers across the country and our intimate, recent experience, the MUSC BOT believes a hasty merger would not be the most timely, cost-effective, risk-weighted approach to providing advanced degrees primarily in science and technology. Nevertheless, our BOT chairman authorized MUSC personnel to collaborate with C of C personnel to consider alternatives to a merger that will meet our region's economic development needs.
In the course of analyzing alternatives, not only did our BOT review several mergers of academic medical centers and colleges/universities, we also assessed various merger alternatives. We looked at how long mergers take and how much they cost. We also assessed the future of higher education, including everything from online courses and degree programs to multi-institutional consortiums. To ignore the trajectory of change in the delivery of post-secondary education and assume that simply merging with another institution will fill sorely needed gaps in Lowcountry higher education would disregard the board's fiduciary duty to MUSC.
Mergers or acquisitions have significant upfront costs such as computer system transitions and policy/procedure alignment. They involve multiple years of culture change (e.g., aligning faculty and staff and measures of institutional performance) and carry considerable risk of failure or subpar performance. The BOT believes that it is premature to disrupt decades of reputation development by MUSC and C of C in the highly competitive heath care and higher education markets to create a vaguely defined "comprehensive research university." Less costly and disruptive alternatives should be examined first.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, MUSC's accrediting body, does not allow a university within a university. Thus, H.4632, as filed, and recent op-ed pieces that say each school can keep its current name while a part of Charleston University are not true with respect to MUSC. Putting either institution's accreditation status in limbo or jeopardy creates unnecessary risk and wastes hard work and money already spent.
There are better ways of providing the desired post-graduate degrees than merging C of C and MUSC. The Legislature could authorize C of C to grant the required degrees. If there is magic in the Charleston University name, then C of C could be a part of the Charleston University and a separate college of graduate applied science and technology could provide the desired degrees. This has been successfully implemented at the College of William and Mary, a C of C peer institution.
Further investigation is necessary to determine the development of an infrastructure that might be called the Charleston University while still partnering with colleges and universities statewide to speed the delivery of the desired degrees by leveraging existing programs, e.g., the Clemson University/MUSC Ph.D in bioengineering.
Ironically, the crux of the argument for a merger, that business in the area needs help now, isn't served by a merger because it would take the better part of a decade to graduate students with those needed degrees.
The key is to leverage evolving forms of graduate education using strategies throughout the state that are forward-thinking, not simply replicating a cost-prohibitive approach that doesn't make sense to those involved with the institutions on a daily basis.
Analyze alternative approaches and select the best. We trust the recently appointed legislative committee will study the issue and are encouraged that an appropriate strategy that meets both business and higher education needs of the Lowcountry will be forthcoming.
The MUSC BOT will work to assure that whatever organization is established to meet current economic needs will be viable to meet future needs as well.
We support economic development in the Lowcountry and statewide, and will continue to support action that maximizes the value of every taxpayer dollar spent.
William B. Hewitt is serving his third, four-year term on the MUSC Board of Trustees. He has notified the board and Gov. Nikki Haley that he will not be a candidate for reappointment in 2015.