IN 1989, THE next big thing was supercomputers, massive, expensive machines that, I wrote at the time, “are capable of processing millions of bits of information at once, enabling them to simulate conditions mathematically that can’t be duplicated in a laboratory, such as those caused by tornado winds and black holes.”
Of course it seems silly today to speak with such awe about even the most advanced 1989 computer, but supporters promised that supercomputers would boost economic development by attracting sophisticated industry through high-level research capabilities. And all the cool universities had one. So of course the University of South Carolina had to have one. As did Clemson.
So when the Commission on Higher Education unveiled a study that warned South Carolina couldn’t support two supercomputing systems, the two schools sent their legions of lobbyists over to the State House and convinced legislators to buy one for each school anyway — a plan that in an early version was to be funded by higher taxes on wine and liquor.
It wasn’t the first time our Legislature had voted to underwrite duplicate programs — or medical schools, or engineering schools or … well, you name it — that our poor state couldn’t afford. And it wouldn’t be the last. In fact, for years before and after, that was the norm.
Then a decade ago, something incredible happened. The presidents of USC, Clemson and the Medical University of South Carolina decided it made more sense to work together than to compete.
Certainly, they were motivated by a changing political landscape, one where cutting taxes was the end-all and be-all, not building empires. But it was not merely pragmatism that brought an end to this intense rivalry over limited state resources that had been one of the most destructive dynamics in our state.
USC President Andrew Sorensen, Clemson President James Barker and MUSC President Dr. Ray Greenberg realized something that our elected officials haven’t all fully recognized: that they all ran important institutions of the same state, with obligations that extended beyond their campuses, and that our state, and indeed their institutions, would be better off if they worked together.
The merger of the USC and MUSC pharmacy schools may be the most obvious result of that alliance, but it is far from the only one, and not even the most important. This new relationship also spawned a bioengineering alliance among all three universities, the creation of the joint Centers of Economic Excellence and Health Sciences South Carolina and a burgeoning new way of understanding the value of higher education to our state.
When Dr. Sorensen announced his retirement in 2007, Dr. Greenberg recalled that among his first trips as USC’s president had been to visit him and President Barker. As he wrote in a guest column in The State: “These were more than symbolic gestures — it was clear from the outset that Andrew Sorensen wanted to build stronger bridges of collaboration with the other two research universities. At the time, some viewed this as a radical idea, since the institutions had a history of viewing each other more as competitors than as allies.”
Dr. Sorensen’s successor, Harris Pastides, had worked closely with him as he developed this alliance, and so he stepped effortlessly into the partnership. Although there was a clear strain in 2010, when Dr. Pastides announced plans to displace MUSC as the state’s largest medical school, the relationship and, more importantly, the mindset survived it.
Now, however, that mindset faces a crucial test. Just four years after Dr. Sorensen’s departure, Mr. Barker announced this spring that he would be retiring. And now Dr. Greenberg is on his way out as well.
And not one board of trustees but two are faced with the task of selecting their next president. Both will focus on finding the right person who can take their schools to the next level, and that’s all fine and good. But if that’s all they consider, then they will have failed their institutions — and our state.
It’s not absolutely essential that the next presidents of Clemson and MUSC and Dr. Pastides form the same close personal relationship that Presidents Sorensen, Barker and Greenberg developed, although that would be ideal. What is essential is that they commit themselves to working collaboratively, and then do that. What is essential is that they understand that our small state’s three research institutions will rise or fall together — and our state’s success is closely tied to their ability to rise.
The trustees who selected Dr. Sorensen and Mr. Barker and Dr. Greenberg probably didn’t foresee this changing relationship. It was a marvelous surprise for them and for all of us. The trustees who will select replacements for Mr. Barker and Dr. Greenberg know what’s possible. And they must make fulfilling that possibility one of their primary criteria.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.