COLUMBIA — An ongoing squabble between state senators and the lieutenant governor is threatening a kill a plan that would allow the College of Charleston to become a research university.
The fight could take with it measures designed to relieve public colleges from some state regulation of construction projects and land purchases, oversight that the schools say costs them time and money.
The proposals are tied together in the same bill, being hashed out in the waning days of the legislative session.
Sen. Harvey Peeler, the Cherokee Republican who heads a legislative committee seeking a compromise on the college bill, said during a meeting Tuesday that the proposal to create the state’s third comprehensive research university had too many unanswered questions to pass before the session ends next week.
Peeler and Senate Education Committee chairman John Courson, R-Richland, who attended Tuesday’s meeting even though he is not on the House-Senate conference committee, want to take the summer to study the plan.
“I’m not for closing the doors on College of Charleston,” Peeler said. “I’m for opening the blinds.”
Peeler and Courson are unhappy with Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, who will leave that post soon to become the College of Charleston’s president. They think McConnell played politics to get the college bill fast-tracked over their objections.
Courson also is unhappy with McConnell for his plans to resign, which forced the Richland Republican to leave his powerful post as Senate president pro tempore to avoid becoming lieutenant governor, one of the least influential jobs in the State House.
McConnell has said he was not trying to influence the bill while presiding over the Senate and understood Courson’s disappointment in having to make the “move up or move out” choice. McConnell, then president pro tem, was in the same position when Ken Ard resigned in 2012.
Peeler questioned Tuesday why the research university proposal needed to move so quickly. The College of Charleston has been working on the bill for more than a year, Stephen Osborne, executive vice president for business affairs, told Peeler’s panel. Plus, Charleston-area lawmakers said $28 million in donations are tied to the bill’s passage.
Peeler also asked if the school planned to use money, obtained from the S.C. Department of Commerce after becoming a research university, to buy the private Charleston School of Law. That would create the state’s second public law school.
The College of Charleston was approached by InfiLaw, the Florida company that has an agreement to buy the Charleston law school, about buying the law school last year, Osborne said. But those talks went nowhere, he added.
Osborne said the school would offer doctoral degrees that S.C. employers need and would not duplicate work by the state’s other major research schools, Clemson and the University of South Carolina. Planned doctoral degrees include computer science and supply chain logistics, he said.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, a Berkeley Republican who sits on the conference committee, said Boeing, which has a plant in North Charleston, needs more workers with advanced degrees now and for an planned expansion that includes moving engineering work to South Carolina. “It’s the businesses coming university to fill the need.”
House members expressed misgivings about a Senate provision in the bill to allow Clemson to forgo state regulatory reviews for construction work and land purchases. Clemson asked USC to join the bill, but the state’s flagship university declined. USC is neutral on the bill.
House members questioned putting public assets under what seemed to be a more private organization. Clemson officials said school trustees would maintain oversight.
Merrill said allowing Clemson that kind of autonomy was not something that Clemson trustees chairman David Wilkins would not have liked when he was House speaker. Seven of Clemson’s 13 trustees are appointed for life. The other six are approved by the General Assembly.
A proposal in the House’s version of the bill would allow all public colleges to forgo some state regulatory reviews, especially for projects paid for with private donations.
The conference committee meets again Tuesday when the Legislature returns to consider the governor’s budget vetoes and other leftover bills, including ethics reform.