UP UNTIL THIS past year, when the conversation in South Carolina turned to the highest levels of higher education, people talked about our three research universities. It was considered a tremendous breakthrough when the presidents of those research universities — Clemson, USC and the Medical University of South Carolina — agreed to stop squabbling over limited state resources and missions and instead work together; that’s how we got the endowed chairs program that is attracting world-class talent to all three schools.
But if you just started paying attention to that discussion in the past few months, you could be excused for thinking we had only two research universities. For the better part of this year, ever since talks about merging the college of Charleston and MUSC broke down, the hot topic in higher education has been the great need to have a research university in Charleston. That would be the same Charleston that is home to MUSC.
We understand that MUSC isn’t a research university of the same sort as Clemson and USC; its doctoral programs are limited to the medical field. But the fact that MUSC’s presence in the Holy City doesn’t even enter into the debate about designating the College of Charleston as a research university just highlights the degree to which this discussion is occurring in a vacuum.
We don’t know whether it would be a good idea or a bad idea to grant the College of Charleston that designation, which allows it to offer doctoral degrees. But we know this: It’s an idea that is being considered completely outside of the context of South Carolina’s system of higher education. It’s an idea that has not been fully vetted. It’s an idea that is being rushed.
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Last week, a committee of the Commission on Higher Education gave its blessing to the College of Charleston’s plan to offer doctoral degrees, after college officials assured the panel that they only wanted to offer specific programs that are needed in their community. They have no intention of becoming a “comprehensive research university,” they said. And perhaps they don’t have that intention. Today.
But we know where this story ends, or at least this chapter of it. It’s the same sort of higher-education parochialism and empire-building that led to all of those two-year colleges turning into four-year colleges, and all those four-year colleges turning into universities. It’s how we ended up with 33 separate colleges, with overlapping degree programs and, in one case, adjacent campuses. It’s how we ended up with two separate medical schools.
Ten years from now, it’ll probably be Myrtle Beach that needs a research university. After that, who knows? Sumter? Florence? Greenville? A chicken in every pot, and a research university in every city, town and hamlet.
And how hard is it to imagine that those same Charleston leaders who are clamoring for their own — second — research university will see it as a great place to house the second state-owned law school. And what a fortunate coincidence: There’s a cash-strapped private law school right there in downtown Charleston that’s looking for a buyer. Which our state government does not need to become.
South Carolina is not a large state. It is not a wealthy state. It is a state that needs to allocate its resources carefully, in order to serve the entire state. Another research university inevitably will cost more money and drain talented students and possibly faculty away from the three we already have.
The question we need to be asking is not whether Charleston needs its own — second — research university. The question is whether South Carolina needs a fourth research university.
If we conclude that the answer is yes, then the question before us should be where that fourth research university should be located — which community can best support it and which university is best prepared to house it.
On Thursday, the full Commission on Higher Education will take up the proposal to turn the College of Charleston into a research university. It might be the right choice to make some day. Today, it is not.