The widely recognized "law of unintended consequences" tells us that even the greatest-sounding ideas, born entirely from benevolent intent, can have inherent flaws that create unforeseeable outcomes - usually undesirable ones.
So it is with the proposal to merge the College of Charleston (C of C) a venerable educational institution based in liberal arts traditions, and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) a revered research institution devoted to the healing arts.
Having served consecutively as chairs of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education for over a decade, we recently looked at the rationale for this proposed merger, the realities of higher education in the 21st century, and the respective nature and characters of the two institutions involved.
Some information below was gleaned from a recently completed white paper prepared through a collaborative initiative of the two institutions, and some from an earlier white paper done by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, based on work by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. Opinions are derived from our respective years of experience in public policy, medicine, accounting, law and higher education stewardship.
From those perspectives, we find common ground in the following observations and recommendations:
The intent of Charleston civic and business leaders who initiated this merger discussion is based in sincere community spirit and an understandable desire to see the Charleston metropolitan area compete with other top regions in the nation for new business and progressive economic growth. We support that goal, yet feel it can be accomplished in more collaborative and less costly ways than a forced merger.
Currently, there are no areas in which academic programs at the two institutions overlap or compete for students, so merging them would not unify redundant degree programs, nor create an institution with unique capacities beyond what could be achieved via broader and more innovative collaboration.
A principle of medicine that should apply as well to public policy endeavors is "first, do no harm." We are hard-pressed to see any merger scenario that would not create harm to the respective institutions, their specialized missions and their students. Indeed, both institutions' searches for new CEOs already are being overshadowed by the merger question, as is recruitment of faculty, and potentially, recruitment of students. National name recognition is historically well-established for the two, but would have to be re-established for any merged entity. Potential for further harm exists in any merger scenario that does not recognize the specialized mission, role and responsibilities of MUSC as it relates to the MUSC Hospital Authority, the premier institutional provider of both health care and clinical experiences for health care providers for many South Carolinians, even beyond the Charleston metro region.
C of C and MUSC's respective missions simply are too different from each other - operating on different academic calendars, with different personnel contract terms and different processes intrinsically related to those missions - to expect substantial personnel or administrative savings to result from the merger. For instance, both MUSC and the C of C recently underwent lengthy, complex moves to new student and financial record management systems. Technical experts indicate it would require years and additional resources to combine these IT support systems following a merger, as the institutions have few system programs in common.
The missions of the two existing institutions also are too different to fill the void that the proposed merger is proposed to fill. At the heart of the perceived need for a Charleston research university, as expressed by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, is for the region "to significantly expand the undergraduate, graduate and advanced degree offerings in the areas of most demand - engineering, IT and computer technology - if it wants to build a strong economy for the future."
True enough, neither C of C nor MUSC emphasize IT software or engineering degrees in their curricula, so it is difficult to fathom that an "arranged marriage" between the two could fill that void expeditiously, if ever. Rather, by the nature of their respective missions, Trident Technical College and the Lowcountry Graduate Center, both already in existence, seem to offer a more natural base from which to address this perceived void, assisted through collaboration with other state institutions that offer advanced degrees. Indeed, the LGC already offers a master of science in computer and information sciences through collaboration between C of C and The Citadel.
Further, since state law already empowers the College of Charleston to operate as "University of Charleston," and it is already the fiscal agent for the LGC, both a framework and initial location for such a broader collaboration already seem to be in place.
A merger would create major and costly accreditation issues. While admittedly arcane to most of the public, accreditation standing dictates everything from the global recognition of graduates' degrees to eligibility for student financial aid and valuable research dollars. Accreditation of desired new programs would have to await a new overall institutional accreditation of the merged entity. New programs not yet accredited would have no standing in competitive economic development situations.
Put more simply, a merger would have the unintended consequence of actually slowing availability of the new programs that are desired, rather than speeding it.
The cost of a merger has not been studied. Based on data from other mergers of public academic institutions, the costs likely would exceed several million dollars. Clearly, these non-productive costs should be analyzed against the cost of moving directly to producing the needed IT and engineering programs through a collaborative approach engaging all area institutions.
Further, creation of a merged institution should not be assumed to be a zero-sum activity, and the source of funding to undertake the additional programs envisioned has not been identified.
Given that all public institutions in South Carolina have lost significant state support in recent years, attempting to expand programs (through either merger or collaboration) without additional resources would have the unintended consequence of harming other higher education institutions statewide.
For all of the above reasons, we believe the proposed merger of the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina, while well-intended, is ill-advised.
Instead, we recommend that the time, energy and public policy expertise currently being focused on the merger proposal be re-directed toward creating an innovative and broader collaboration that would take advantage of the strengths of all the Charleston metro region's higher education institutions to achieve the desired goals in engineering, IT and computer programs, as well as pursue biotech research opportunities for which MUSC is uniquely qualified.
We stand ready to assist in any such collaborative initiative.
The authors served successive terms as chairs of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education from 2002-2013. Dalton Floyd Jr. is a Surfside Beach attorney; Dr. Layton McCurdy is a physician and Dean Emeritus of the College of Medicine at MUSC in Charleston; Ken Wingate is a Columbia attorney and former accountant.