Lt. Gov. McConnell: No Charleston-MUSC merger this year

03/07/2014 5:53 PM

03/07/2014 5:54 PM

Legislative proposals to merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina, creating a larger research university in Charleston, will not have enough time to pass this year, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell told The State.

McConnell, one of the three finalists for president of the College of Charleston, added he might not need a merger with MUSC to put his alma mater on the same research-university footing as Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.

If he gets the job, McConnell said he would push for legislation next year allowing the College of Charleston to offer doctorate degrees, creating a third full-fledged research university in the state.

The doctorate programs and research efforts would fall under a new name, the University of Charleston, McConnell said. The rest of the school would remain operating under the College of Charleston name. State law already allows College of Charleston trustees to create a University of Charleston.

“The college can become a research university without MUSC,” McConnell said.

Adding doctorate programs and research work to the College of Charleston also would make it a stronger merger partner for MUSC, he said.

“If you two people get at a table to merge and you’re the weak player, you’ll lose your identity,” he said. “I want to make sure that if the merger occurs up the road that we’re in a very strong position at the College of Charleston.”

McConnell, 66, said he does not want to duplicate work that already is done at the state’s other research schools. Instead, the College of Charleston should do research unique to South Carolina. For example, Charleston, home to a port, could conduct work on shipping logistics.

McConnell said he would spend his first months in office trying to build consensus with faculty, alumni and trustees on his vision, which includes preserving the College of Charleston’s core as a liberal-arts school.

“You do that by strengthening it and to strengthen it, what you do is build in these other areas where there’s a perceived need,” he said. “The college has to be relevant to this business community and to the demands of today.”

In any event, plans to create a new school called Charleston University from the merger of the College of Charleston and MUSC likely will have to wait, McConnell said.

The merger bills, introduced last month, are not going to pass in the second year of a two-year legislative cycle, said McConnell, who spent three decades in the S.C. Senate before becoming lieutenant governor.

“I know this process well enough,” he said. “It’s going to take some deliberation and some study.”

The merger proposals have not yet gone before House and Senate committees. S.C. House budget leaders announced an ad-hoc merger study committee this week.

McConnell said the merger talk might allow passage of the changes that he wants, such as adding doctorate degrees, “to let the College (of Charleston) go forward where it needs to go and satisfy the community. Maybe out of that will be a more collaborative arrangement (with MUSC).”

MUSC’s trustees oppose a merger but support the College of Charleston’s efforts to become a research school, board chairman Tom Stephenson said.

Stephenson said he did not know if MUSC, a small medical-centric research school, would agree to a merger after College of Charleston added doctorate programs. “I can’t speak to five years from now. Nothing moves fast in higher ed.”

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat who is one the merger bill’s main sponsors, said he is open to other ways to land a research school in Charleston. But adding a second research school in Charleston “will be a hard sell statewide,” he said.

McConnell joins retired Harvard professor Jody Encarnation and former University of Southern Mississippi president Martha Saunders as finalists to succeed outgoing College of Charleston president George Benson.

The trio have campus visits planned next week. A decision on a new president is expected in a few weeks.

“I hope I make a positive impression,” McConnell said.

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