South Carolina could have a third large research university by the fall of 2016.
Lowcountry lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that would merge the College of Charleston and Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina, creating Charleston University.
If approved by the Legislature, the College of Charleston would be called Charleston University George Street Campus and MUSC would become Charleston University Medical Campus.
The state has two other large research universities, the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. MUSC also is considered a research school, though it does not offer undergraduate programs and concentrates on the medical field.
Bill sponsors, which include powerful House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, want to move quickly if the General Assembly agrees to merge the Charleston schools.
Legislative leaders and the governor would appoint a new board by July 1 to start work on creating the new college. Charleston University’s board would have 23 of the trustees currently on the MUSC and College of Charleston boards.
The MUSC and College of Charleston boards would continue to operate until the merger is completed.
“Business leaders have strongly embraced the idea of this merger, knowing that a full-scale comprehensive research university in Charleston is not just good for the Lowcountry’s economic future but our entire state’s,” Harrell said in a statement.
Gov. Nikki Haley said she thinks the boards of the two schools should decide if they want to combine.
“I do not think they should not be forced into a merger,” Haley said. “This should be something where the two boards come together and make the decision together.”
Discussions between the schools about possibly merging have been ongoing for months. However, MUSC’s leadership has been hesitant about the idea.
MUSC did not have a comment about the Charleston University bill. But the school’s interim president told lawmakers Tuesday that he was concerned that MUSC could lose its identity in a merger.
“It’s been around since 1824,” interim president Mark Sothmann told state budget writers. “Our students value that degree. ... There are ways we can come together and get done what we need to get done, in terms of delivering advanced degrees to the business community, while at the same time not destroying the identities of two institutions that have real strong brand names.”
The College of Charleston supports a merger and its board of trustees “welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with the General Assembly and all its stakeholders to discuss how we can work together to meet the higher-education needs of South Carolina,” spokesman Mike Robertson said.
Efforts to reach Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who chose not to run again so he could apply to become the College of Charleston’s next president, for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
However, McConnell, a major power broker after a decade running the state Senate, has said he expects Charleston to have a comprehensive research university.
“I don’t see how (College of Charleston) can escape that,” McConnell said last year. “I believe being a liberal arts school is the focus, but the best insurance is to stay relevant. … The college needs to be in focus with businesses and with their needs.”
State Rep. Jim Merrill, one of the bill’s main sponsors, said the colleges should merge if the new school makes sense for the state, regardless of any objections.
The Berkeley Republican said the merger would be vetted through the legislative process including committee hearings. The bill does not include any language about adding a law school, a big issue since the private Charleston School of Law is going through a sale.
Merrill did not have a price estimate for the merger, but said he expected any new costs could be offset by savings on combining operations, such as for accounting and police.
Merrill said lawmakers could make the College of Charleston a research university, but other S.C. schools would object to two research universities — MUSC and Charleston — in the same city. A merger should not take state money away from the state’s two other research universities, USC and Clemson, because a Charleston University would have new ways to raise money and obtain grants, Merrill said.
Efforts to reach USC and Clemson officials for comment were unsuccessful.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley Republican who plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate on Tuesday, said the Lowcountry deserves to offer graduate degrees at a school nearby.
“Having your top faculty locally, instead of 100-200 miles away, there are advantages to that,” Grooms said.
On a lighter note, Merrill and Grooms said it was too early to talk about whether the new school would have a football team or change the College of Charleston’s Cougar nickname.