College of Charleston’s research university status may have to wait another year

State Rep. Jim Merrill

A bill that would allow the College of Charleston to offer doctoral programs and become South Carolina’s fourth research university has stalled in a House committee.

This marks the second year a research university bill championed by state Reps. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, has struggled to make it through the legislative process.

Merrill and Stavrinakis, along with 13 other representatives, filed this year’s bill in January. But it hasn’t moved past the House Committee on Education and Public Works.

Merrill said Friday that he still hopes the measure will pass in both the House and Senate this year. But this is the first year of a two-year session. If it passes only in the House this year, it likely can get Senate approval next year.

“What hurt the effort this year is South Carolina State University,” he said. Legislators’ attention was consumed by the troubled, debt-ridden school, he said. “It took so much time and energy.”

Merrill also said lawmakers aren’t trying to create a comprehensive research university in the Lowcountry. Instead, they are pushing for a way to offer doctoral programs directly related to the region’s economic development needs. “It’s the business community saying this is what we need locally,” Merrill said.

College officials have said they learned after last year’s legislative session ended that leaders at the state’s Commission on Higher Education said the school could attain research university status by simply changing its mission statement.

In September, the commission approved the school’s amended mission statement. But college President Glenn McConnell said it would be wise to pursue research university status through the commission and the General Assembly.

While commission officials said amending the statement is enough for the College of Charleston to become a research institution and offer doctoral programs, Merrill and other legislators disagree. “It’s our contention that a bunch of bureaucrats can’t change the designation of a school,” he said.

The college is currently classified as a teaching college. Clemson, the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina are currently the state’s only research universities.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce had made gaining research university status for the College of Charleston one of its priorities for this year’s legislative session.

But Mary Graham, the chamber’s senior vice president for business advocacy, said she’s not worried about it. “It’s a top priority, but we don’t think it’s urgent,” because there is another year in the session.

She said the college, after getting commission approval to amend its mission statement, already is working on developing doctoral degrees in supply chain management and computer technology.

College spokesman Mike Robertson said school leaders are monitoring the bill and are available to answer any questions legislators might have about it.

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