USC eyes med school expansion

The Medical University of South Carolina's Ashley River Tower

COLUMBIA -- The University of South Carolina wants to expand opportunities for medical students in Greenville, but lawmakers said they worry that the proposal could end up splitting limited resources with the Medical University of South Carolina and lead to higher college tuition.

Harris Pastides, USC president, revealed the proposal Wednesday that would eventually provide spots for 400 medical students on Greenville Hospital System's Memorial Campus. Pastides said the expansion would be paid for by the hospital system and with tuition from medical school students in Greenville.

Three Lowcountry lawmakers, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, Sen. Paul Campbell and Rep. Chip Limehouse, all said that at first blush the idea could backfire on the state, given the budget crisis.

"The timing doesn't make sense," said Campbell, R-Goose Creek.

Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he tried to dissuade USC officials from the idea when he first learned about it a few months ago.

"I was hoping they would have backed off," Limehouse said late Wednesday.

Stavrinakis recalled the financial struggles USC officials outlined to legislators this year. USC officials told legislative budget writers that the university was having a hard time supporting existing programs, and USC raised tuition on students this year by 6.9 percent for state residents.

"It does concern me and it will be something we will take a close look at as legislators," said Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.

It's unclear what legislative approval would be needed as the proposal moves forward, but Stavrinakis said at some point USC officials are going to have to talk to legislators about university funding.

Stavrinakis said he also is worried about the impact on MUSC, but only to a degree.

"I firmly believe MUSC is marching its way to world-class status, and there is nothing that's going to change that," he said.

Likewise, Ray Greenberg, president of MUSC, questioned whether public universities should be undertaking large program expansions during tight budget times.

"It seems to be to be ill-timed to be thinking of big, new ventures," he told The State newspaper. "To me, it sends an inconsistent message."

Greenberg, like Campbell, Limehouse and Stavrinakis, still was sorting through the details of the proposal. Greenberg said he worries that the plan could send legislators and taxpayers the inaccurate message that school officials are not serious when they describe the pain of state budget cuts in this difficult economic environment.

"I do believe there is a credibility issue here," Greenberg told The State. "I and my colleagues need to act like the new world we're in."

The next step in the proposal will come Friday when USC's Board of Trustees will consider the idea; trustees' approval would be needed for the idea to go any further. Details of the proposed expansion were raised Wednesday during a meeting of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.

Michael Amiridis, USC's vice president for academic affairs and provost, said the proposal, part of a 10-year plan, does not rely on state tax dollars. USC and the hospital system are working out the details of how much money will be needed from the hospital system, he said.

A report by The Greenville News estimated that the program could cost $25 million to $27 million over several years.

The expansion plans call for 40 students to be taught on the Memorial Campus beginning in 2012. Four years later, USC wants to expand that pool to 100 students, and hopes to have 400 medical students in Greenville within a decade.

The USC School of Medicine in Columbia has 330 students. Amiridis said the university wants to expand the number of students at its Columbia campus, but needs a private funding partner to accomplish that goal.

A senior Upstate legislator also said he has big concerns about the proposal.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said Wednesday that resources are scarce, and the state has few tax dollars to go around.

"Resources of the state need to be very strategically placed to do the most good," Martin said. "My thought is, we can ill-afford three medical schools in the state, simply from an economic standpoint. We just don't have the resources for that."

Greenville Republican Sen. David Thomas said he sees many upsides.

"I don't think at the outset legislators should block what might be a very good medical advancement for state," Thomas said late Wednesday. He did note, however, that to fully formulate his position, he will have to learn more about the costs involved.

Thomas said he has seen the medical students in Greenville hospitals over the years, and believes their contributions are valuable.

USC and the Greenville Hospital System have a collaboration that dates to 1983, according to the hospital system's website.

USC officials did acknowledge that they were wary of potential opposition from political leaders who already have criticized colleges and universities for what they describe as inefficient and duplicative growth.

USC officials stressed that the Greenville medical program will not be a "new" medical school. Instead, they describe it as an expansion of the university's existing medical education program, where students already can do clinical training in Greenville during the third and fourth years of their medical education.