College of Charleston research bill dies

ashain@thestate.comJune 17, 2014 

S.C. lawmakers failed to reach a compromise Tuesday on a bill that would allow the College of Charleston to become the state’s third full-fledged research university.

The same bill also would have relieved public colleges of some state regulation of their construction projects and land purchases.

With S.C. House members not planning to come back to Columbia after Tuesday, the failure to reach a compromise kills the bill’s chances this session.

“We were first-and-goal from the 5 (yard-line) and ran four plays and didn't make it across the goal line,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who pushed for the research designation for the College of Charleston.

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who will become the college’s president next month, called the bill’s death “very disappointing.” He added, “It will slow our progress.”

McConnell said the College of Charleston will work with the S.C. Commission on Higher Education to change its mission statement — a move that could allow the school to offer doctoral degrees. But he still wants a change in the law at some point.

However, some state senators, led by Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, expressed opposition to moving quickly to make the College of Charleston the state's third full-fledged research university. Some lawmakers thought undue pressure to move forward was coming from McConnell.

Peeler and Senate Education Committee chairman John Courson, R-Richland, said they are not opposed to the new research designation, which advocates say could help boost Lowcountry economic-development. But they said they want more time to study the issue.

“Will the world come to an end ... if we come back to this in January?” Peeler asked at a House-Senate conference committee meeting Tuesday.

Charleston-area lawmakers said $28 million in donations are tied to the bill’s passage as well as new programs that could aid employers, including aircraft maker Boeing’s North Charleston plant.

The College of Charleston said it would not offer doctoral degrees that duplicate those offered by the state’s other major research schools, Clemson University and the University of South Carolina. Planned doctoral degrees include computer science and supply-chain logistics, school officials said.

“We will be responsible for losing many, many jobs if we don't pass it,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, a member of the conference committee.

The Senate’s version of the proposal would have allowed 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.

But some House members questioned giving so much autonomy to a Clemson’s board of trustees, a majority of whom are appointed for life, not by the General Assembly. The House came up with a compromise that could have eliminated some of the regulatory hurdles for all public colleges, but that did not sway senators.

Senate conferees insisted on regulatory relief for Clemson – a final stumbling block that lawmakers could not overcome.

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