I want to join forces with the forward-thinking leaders in this community to help build a comprehensive research university in Charleston.

As superintendent of Charleston County School District, I value both the Medical University and the College of Charleston as great assets to our city and state. To date, much of the local discussion has focused on the pros and cons of the proposed merger, and relatively little has been said about why the idea of a "high research activity university" is worth pursuing. The goal to expand undergraduate and graduate learning opportunities in growth industries, innovation, and entrepreneurship should be the focus of all discussions. If we focus on the opportunities that a premier research institution will provide, I am confident that we will find the common ground to create an inspiring blueprint to make this goal a reality.

My own educational experience is a clear example of the importance of access to research institutions. My professional life was enriched by the robust intellectual environment that existed in Philadelphia, a city that was anchored by major research universities. Philadelphia had three universities rated as among the top institutions in the nation. They are the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Drexel University. I was able to earn my doctorate from Temple University and then complete post-doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I also taught graduate classes at Drexel University while serving as a middle school principal. Ten years ago, I moved from Philadelphia to Charleston and learned the closest comprehensive research university was two hours away in Columbia. I would like CCSD teachers and administrators to have the world class educational opportunities I had - without having to leave Charleston.

Comprehensive research universities offer vast and diverse areas of study. For example, at Temple University students are enrolled in over 300 academic degree programs offered at seven campuses in Pennsylvania and international campuses in Rome, Tokyo, Singapore, and London. The University of Pennsylvania is another example of the positive impact of a comprehensive research university. The university consistently ranks among the top five research universities in the United States. It offers a broad range of academic departments, an extensive research enterprise, a number of community outreach and public service programs, medical and dental schools, biomedical program, and the Wharton School for business.

The "Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education" rates universities throughout the nation. One hundred eight institutions are listed in the top group as "very high research activity." As might be expected, larger states may have a dozen or more institutions with "very high research activity." For the South, Carnegie's list indicates that Florida has eight and Virginia has six "high or very high research activity" universities. North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama each have five. Tennessee and South Carolina each have two.

Professors, graduates, and researchers from tier one universities, like the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Duke, and MIT, are launching new products, solving complex international problems, shaping national policy, and founding technology companies, international law firms, and global financial institutions. Nine University of Pennsylvania faculty members or graduates have won Nobel Prizes in the last ten years. What a great gift it would be to the children of Charleston if academic leaders like these were members of our community.

While the sheer economic impact of a major university is unmistakable, there are clearly other benefits. Quality thinkers elevate our public discourse. More informed citizens shape local policy and influence who gets elected to public office. There is simply an increased problem-solving capacity within the community.

I know that building a comprehensive research university in Charleston is a process, not an event. Rather than sitting on the sidelines watching the "merger debate" unfold, let's identify fields of study we need in growth industries. I am confident we can recruit key business, science, technology, and education entrepreneurs to form teams and work with stellar faculty from MUSC, the College of Charleston, and other universities to lay out specific blueprints and program essentials.

Whether or not the proposed merger goes forward, the vision of a vibrant research hub can only be realized through thoughtful collaboration and detailed planning, driven by the audacity and ambition for which Charleston is famous.

Let's embrace that vision together, and let's start now.

Dr. Nancy J. McGinley is superintendent of Charleston County School District.