CLEMSON - With little hesitation, the S.C. Commission on Higher Education unanimously approved on Thursday the College of Charleston's newly amended mission statement, paving the way for future graduate offerings.
But some of the Lowcountry's lawmakers who were proponents of the University of Charleston bill during this past legislative session say the celebration may be premature because the commission may not have the authority to grant policy changes that alter the structure of higher education in the state.
"While it would be easy for me to be supportive of their ruling, instead, what we have is a feckless institution like CHE trying to make itself relevant," said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. "And that's not in the long-term interest of anyone."
During its retreat at Clemson University, the commission swiftly approved the college's ability to expand the University of Charleston South Carolina, within the College of Charleston.
"The College of Charleston now has a toolbox that is available to our region of the state as economics determine the need for advanced studies," said College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell. "The college is enhanced. The community is enhanced. Our future is enhanced by the toolbox that we've been given."
McConnell also touted that what happened on Thursday created an insurance policy for current and future graduates that the college will remain a premier liberal arts and sciences undergraduate institution because a merger possibility has been removed from the table.
To determine the needs of the community, the college will have to conduct a study. An expansion will likely lean toward doctoral degrees in information management, computer science, and supply chain and logistics, McConnell said.
The College of Charleston will remain the college's main entity. The University of Charleston, established by state lawmakers and the school's Board of Trustees in 1992 to house master's degree programs, will have to rely on the private sector to be able to expand, McConnell said.
"We want to be targeted," McConnell added. "We don't want to be universal."
Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, said he'd have to take a closer look at what the commission has done. He questioned why the commission did not become involved earlier in the process, if they were going to take a stand like they did on Thursday.
"We may not have had to have gone through what we did the last two, three weeks in the Senate if they had been more aggressive," Courson said. "We had some very strong words said. What happened in the Senate should have not happened and would have not happened."
College leaders and local legislators originally thought the school needed approval from the General Assembly to become a designated research university and offer doctoral degrees. In the weeks leading up to the end of session, relationships between lawmakers became strained as they tried to negotiate a compromise concerning the University of Charleston bill. But with neither side willing to budge, the discussion simply ended without a vote.
College officials eventually learned that the state's Commission on Higher Education had the authority to OK the plan by approving the college's amended mission statement without getting approval from the General Assembly.
But members of the Legislature say it's not that simple. The commission, Merrill said, is a panel that does not have one elected official that can be held accountable.
"CHE knows that it is beginning to lose credibility, so now it is trying to stem that tide by granting itself the authority to expand higher education," Merrill said. "That is a mess."
Senator Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, also said he was "cautiously optimistic" in moving forward, because he believes the college will need General Assembly authorization at some point.
"I'm not certain that the Commission on Higher Education can allow the College of Charleston to achieve true R1 (research) status," Grooms said. "We still may need General Assembly authorization, but I'll take what I can get any day."
Staff writer Diane Knich contributed to this report.