COLUMBIA - The S.C. Senate voted Thursday to place a bill that would allow for a newly expanded University of Charleston on its schedule without going through the normal process, increasing the bill's chances for passage in the last days of the state's legislative session.
The issue, while seemingly a minor one involving Senate rules, may have given the bill its best chance at passing this year.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said a donor has considered a large donation to the newly proposed school, which would be housed at the College of Charleston. He said the Senate should move quickly.
The bill normally would be vetted by the Senate Education Committee, headed by Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, a key leader in the Senate. Courson said the bill should go through the normal process and urged senators not to call it up early.
The Senate sided with Leatherman, 22-15, but a hearing still will be held Wednesday in front of the full Senate Education Committee. The bill could come up for a vote Tuesday, however.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said in an interview that the Senate's rare action underscores the importance of the bill. "In 16 years that's only been done two other times to my knowledge," he said. "This bill is extremely important to the people of South Carolina."
Donors, whom he did not name, have come forward and raised the prospect of multimillion-dollar donations to the new University of Charleston, Grooms said. Leatherman said on the Senate floor it involved a prospective new Ph.D. program in computer science. He was unavailable later for comment.
Grooms said the donations were not the only reason to move quickly on the bill. "My fear is over the next year we'll have other institutions of higher learning who have interest in moving into the area ... blocking the bill," he said.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the incoming president of the College of Charleston, presides over the Senate and has spoken in favor of the legislation. He declined to discuss the donations specifically but said he was "knowledgeable of the potentials. I'll always be open to donations at the college," he said. McConnell is expected to start at C of C on July 1.
McConnell, who spent more than three decades in the Senate before becoming lieutenant governor, said anything is possible when it comes to the legislative process. He spoke in favor of the bill. "This was the pitch I made to the board (of trustees) of my vision of where to take the college," he said. "It allows the college to chart its own future. We can shape the future instead of being shaped by it."
The measure would allow for the University of Charleston-South Carolina to become the state's fourth major research university. The school would exist as a separate entity from the College of Charleston, and the college's liberal arts degree programs would not be affected by the bill, lawmakers have said. The new school would be overseen by the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.