February 15, 2014

MUSC, C of C students say their voices not heard in merger talk

Students at the College of Charleston and Medical University of South Carolina say lawmakers are not taking their opinions into account in a proposed merger of the schools.

Danny Vo graduated from the College of Charleston before heading a few blocks west to become a dental student at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“College of Charleston made me the adult I am. I learned about living away from home,” said Vo, a Columbia native and president of the medical school’s student government. “MUSC is where I am learning my profession. They’re very different atmospheres.”

Like many of the medical school’s 2,700 students, Vo has doubts about a bill introduced in the General Assembly this month that would force a merger between the College of Charleston and MUSC by 2016.

His concerns are shared on the 11,800-student College of Charleston campus, especially with the name changes suggested in the bill.

“What do you mean we’re going to be Charleston University?” asked Chris Piedmont, the school’s student government vice president, about the bill’s proposed name for the merged colleges. “The George Street Campus (the suggested new name for the College of Charleston) has been very off-putting. Our institution is older than our country. That is not very respectful for the strong history we have.”

Students on both in-town Charleston campuses don’t think their views have not been reflected in the movement toward combining their schools into the state’s third large research university.

“We really don’t see much on students being talked about,” Piedmont said. “It’s like Columbia is saying to us that we’re going to have to do this without us coming to them. It’s our degree. It’s our tuition dollars.”

‘Good for the region’

But state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, one of the main sponsors of the merger bill, says he would rescind the proposal if it would damage his alma mater or the medical school, which he called a “treasure in the state.”

He said trustees of a merged college could change the names proposed in the bill – Charleston University George Street Campus and Charleston University Medical Campus. Trustees of the new Charleston University would come from both schools, according to the bill.

The combined universities would leverage their strengths to boost the Lowcountry economy, merger proponents have said.

“Their names will be protected. Their missions will be protected,” said Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat. “We’re not going to scale back operations at the universities. We’re doing what’s good for the schools and good for the region.”

MUSC’s leadership does not see it that way.

The medical school’s trustees voted last week to reject the legislative merger proposal.

MUSC board chairman Tom Stephenson said the merger talk is hurting the medical school’s search for a new president. The school’s interim president told lawmakers that MUSC is worried about losing its identity in a merger.

Stavrinakis said he is irritated at MUSC’s stance. He said he has taken part in talks for more than a year about a merger between the schools and Stephenson requested draft legislation last year.

“We didn’t hatch this idea,” Stavrinakis said. “The school came up with it first. ... That first draft must not have gone over all that well.”

Merger talks stopped soon thereafter, he said.

“The real reason is that people are worried about losing their board seats on MUSC,” Stavrinakis said. “They promised to work in good faith. There has been zero good faith shown.”

Stephenson said MUSC has acted in good faith, but that lawmakers surprised school leaders by introducing the merger bill.

“We had no input on that,” he said. “But if they want to force a merger, they can.”

A merger had some appeal at first, Stephenson said.

But the MUSC board decided there was no advantage to combining schools with different student cultures, schedules and tenure systems, he said. The schools do not have overlapping programs, which limits opportunities to cut duplication and save money. And MUSC does not offer the graduate science and technical programs that College of Charleston wanted to add.

“Where’s the money going to come from to add these programs?” Stephenson asked. He added that he does not care about keeping the board seat that he has held for 16 years.

But Stavrinakis says MUSC leaders are “spreading fear on campus. I think students are being fed a line that this will not work.”

‘Mutually destructive’

Nearly 9 in 10 of the 1,100 MUSC students responding to a student government survey last week opposed the merger, Vo said. A majority, however, favored some sort of collaboration with the College of Charleston, MUSC’s neighbor.

Following the survey, the student government gave a statement to MUSC’s trustees last week that said, in part: “(T)he cultures of the two institutions are not synonymous and the resulting clash would be mutually destructive; that there has been no evidence shown that the merger would academically benefit MUSC; and that the decision to merge seems to be motivated by political and financial reasons rather than academic reasons.”

College of Charleston’s student government has not taken a position on the proposed merger, Piedmont said. A forum with students last week was postponed because of the winter storm.

“We’re still making up our mind,” he said. “But this needs to be thought out.”

George Benson, the College of Charleston’s soon-to-retire president, has backed the merger, though the school’s board has not taken an official stance.

Piedmont said he likes attending a school that he calls a small town within a big city.

The communications major spent a year at Clemson University before returning to his hometown for a college that he thought better suited his interest in the humanities. Piedmont said the emphasis at Clemson was more on the sciences and finding a high-tech job.

“I wanted something out of the box,” he said. “I found it here.”

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