The legislative debate over creating the Lowcountry's first comprehensive research university - so combative a state senator called it "a declaration of war on Charleston," - may have been unnecessary, several state leaders say.

The state's Commission on Higher Education might have the authority to green-light the establishment of a University of Charleston without getting approval from the General Assembly.

A bill to expand graduate and doctoral offerings at the College of Charleston was defeated this week in the final days of the legislative session.

But incoming College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell, who resigned his position as lieutenant governor Wednesday, said he recently learned from a higher education commission representative that the college's expansion might still be able to proceed without lawmakers' consent.

McConnell, who previously served for decades in the state Senate, said he's not sure the commission has the authority to approve the change. But he's going to look into it when he takes the reins at the college July 1.

Expanding advanced degrees that are relevant to the needs of students and the region's business community is so important that he is going to pursue research university status on two tracks, he said. First, he's going to seek approval from the school's Board of Trustees to apply to the commission. He also is going to help supportive state legislators prepare to file another bill for the General Assembly to consider in its next session, which begins in January.

"It's best to cross your Ts and dot your Is," McConnell said. "Some good things don't come easy."

Julie Carullo, the commission's deputy executive director, said proponents of the college's bill pursued it in the Legislature without talking to the commission. "We were not engaged by the College of Charleston over the requested change," she said.

But, she said, the commission has the authority to approve changes to the institutional missions of the state's public colleges and universities. That means that if the school requests it, the panel has the power to place a school into one of four institutional categories: research universities; comprehensive, four-year universities; two-year regional campuses of the University of South Carolina; and technical colleges.

In 2000, for example, the commission approved the University of South Carolina Beaufort's request to change from a two-year regional campus to a four-year, comprehensive university, Carullo said. That change didn't require legislative approval, Carullo said.

If the College of Charleston wants to become a research university, she said, it can apply to the commission to amend its mission. The commission would then hold public hearings before making a decision on the proposed change.

Carullo said the commission, however, only can approve a change from one institutional category to another. It has no mechanism for allowing the college to begin offering doctoral programs without making a transition to become a full research university, she said. Basically, it's all or nothing if the college wants to offer doctoral degrees.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, one of the University of Charleston's strongest proponents in the Legislature, said he agrees with McConnell's' two-pronged approach. But he also plans to introduce legislation that specifically lists which doctoral degrees the school would offer.

Laura Bright, vice president of marketing for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said her group now is putting the finishing touches on a study outlining which degrees local employers are seeking. The results of the study, examining higher education offerings in the region compared to the talent needs of the region's employers, will be released Wednesday at the group's Competitiveness Summit.

Irina Gigova, a history professor at the college, said she hopes in the coming months an effort is made to gain support for the research university plan from the college community. "The only reason why you did not see popular outcries against (the last) version of the bill on behalf of college constituencies was due to its vagueness," she said. "However, that also meant that not many people around here actively advocated for the bill either. The bill will have a much better chance to pass if it is preceded by a careful study."

Brandon Fish, a senior at the college and a member of the grassroots group Fight for CofC, said many people want to see the college expand, but they want to make sure the expansion meets both the needs of the business community and the needs of the college. "Everybody wants to have a discussion on the expansion of the College of Charleston."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.