The bill co-sponsored by 11 Republicans and Democrats would create a combined Charleston University on July 1, giving the state its third comprehensive research university.
In a joint statement, Republican Rep. Jim Merrill and Democratic Rep. Leon Stavrinakis said the merger is long overdue for the Lowcountry’s economy.
“We are confident this merger does not adversely affect either institution and, ultimately, the merged value and prestige of Charleston University will be greater than the simple sum of its parts,” said the primary sponsors. “It is right for business. It is right for higher education. It is right for the Lowcountry. It is right for South Carolina, and it is our obligation as legislators to deliver.”
The state has three research universities: the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and MUSC. But the latter offers only medical degrees.
MUSC’s mission is too limited to address businesses’ needs for advanced degrees and training for area workers. A combined university that expands on what the College of Charleston and MUSC can offer separately is a solution, said Merrill, a University of South Carolina graduate.
“There needs to be the same synergy that exists in the Midlands and Upstate,” he said, adding the Lowcountry is behind partly because of its historical reliance on military and tourism jobs.
The idea is backed by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, a co-sponsor.
A MUSC representative did not immediately respond. College of Charleston spokesman Mike Robertson said its board welcomes the opportunity to collaborate on how to meet the state’s higher education needs. He notes that retiring College of Charleston President George Benson has said for 18 months he personally supports a merger and talked about the benefits of doing so in a House subcommittee earlier this week.
Gov. Nikki Haley said she hopes the universities’ boards come together and discuss what’s in the schools’ best interest, but she doesn’t support forcing a merger legislatively.
Commerce Bobby Hitt said recruiting and expanding businesses in the Charleston region is a key to South Carolina’s economic growth, but he echoed his boss’ concerns in not endorsing the bill.
“Any proposal to create a full-scale, comprehensive research university in this region clearly makes sense for businesses in Charleston and across South Carolina,” he said. He added, however, “An undertaking this large should come from collaboration of the two respective boards and their stakeholders, and we encourage those discussions.”
Founded in 1770, the liberal-arts College of Charleston is the nation’s 13th oldest college, with about 12,000 students. Nearly 3,000 medical students attend MUSC, founded in 1824. More than 500 others are in residency training at its 700-bed medical center, according to their Web sites.