Lawmakers spark controversy with proposed bill to merge CofC, MUSC

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- Two members of the South Carolina House filed legislation to create a single university out of the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.{}

The new school would be called Charleston University, according to the legislation filed by Reps. Jim Merrill and Leon Stavrinakis.{}

"We've seen the Charleston economy going through a rapid transformation and growth and it's the job of these public institutions to change when the public needs them to change to meet those needs," said Stavrinakis. "We're trying to train people and educate people so they can step right in to great jobs.{} When you create jobs and don't have the resources and tools for folks to get themselves equipped for them, they're going to hire from other places."

In a release, Merrill and Stavrinakis said they believed the merger would help both schools.{}

On Thursday, Stavrinakis said there would be a multi-year project before the merger{} happened. After that the schools would keep their names under the umbrella of the University of Charleston.{}

College of Charleston senior Damla Alkan disagreed with the idea of any kind of name change.

"We have to preserve some of the history. It's really important to do that in Charleston. If we merge schools, I don't understand why we'd have to change the name or identity at all," said Alkan.

Stavrinakis said the move would allow{}for more research and expanded degree offerings for Boeing and other growing science and technology fields, and put the school on par with Clemson and the University of South Carolina in terms of state funding.{}

"If it's more funding for the school. It's better for us," said MUSC dental student Chris McKee.

"We've seen the Charleston economy going through a rapid transformation and growth and it's the job of these public institutions to change when the public needs them to change to meet those needs," said Stavrinakis.

Right now, only medical research takes place at MUSC, Stavrinakis said. The College of Charleston does not operate any research under state-funding laws, he said.

Leaders from both schools have been discussing the merger with each other as well as local business leaders for the last year, said Stavrinakis.

But College of Charleston senior Adam Cabe did not believe a bill was necessary.

"I think that takes away the freedom aspect of it. It should be more of a cooperative between the two schools," said Cabe.

He said he hopes to see the bill move into special committee in the next couple of weeks.

"The bottom line is, this merger is long overdue - 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," a release reads.{}

State Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt added his support to the measure and said it makes sense for the region and its plans to grow business in and around Charleston.{}

"Business recruitment and expansion in the Charleston region is one of the many keys to continued economic growth here in South Carolina. One of the challenges we face right now is how to better align the needs of the business community with our talent pool," he said.

State House Speaker Bobby Harrell lauded Merrill and Stavrinakis for the bill.

"Business leaders have strongly embraced the idea of this merger, knowing that a full-scale comprehensive research university in Charleston is not just good for the Lowcountry's economic future but our entire state's," said Harrell.{}

While state legislators seem to be on board with the merger, officials at the College of Charleston said the Board of Trustees have not yet discussed the bill.

Mike Robertson, the school's media relations director, said the Board was interested in working with the Legislature and all shareholders to improve the higher education in South Carolina.{}

"For the past 18 months, President George Benson has publicly supported the merger of these two great universities.{} In taking this position, President Benson has spoken only for himself, and not on behalf of the College," said Robertson.{}

Benson recently spoke about the benefits of a merger at the{}House Higher Education, Technical and Cultural Budget Subcommittee on Feb. 5.

"The concept of a merger between the College of Charleston and MUSC has been raised in various discussions over the past three decades. In any discussions of increased collaboration between the two institutions, the idea of a merger emerges as one possibility," a statement from President George Benson's office read.

Benson said members of the two universities were involved in all meetings called by Mayor Joseph Riley.{}Benson added that there is a history of merger talks between CofC and MUSC, citing efforts that did not come to fruition in the early 1980s and the late 1990s.{}"While neither of these efforts resulted in a merger of the institutions, both discussions produced outcomes that helped improve collaboration between the College and MUSC," he{} said.Benson closes the message to the College community stressing that the talks going on now are preliminary, adding that there are numerous steps and many sides to consider before moving forward.{}

Riley, a longtime proponent of the idea, commends the bill.

"A comprehensive research and graduate degree granting university is essential for the future economic success of the Charleston region.{} A Charleston University containing the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston will only enhance both of these institutions.{} Having eventually Ph.D. programs in chemistry, physics, computer science, aeronautical engineering, perhaps a law school, and even more are the model for the future of a healthy, vibrant region.{} I commend Representatives Merrill and Stavrinakis for introducing their legislation today that would create the Charleston University.{} This is an idea whose time has come," he said.

The measure also has the support of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, which recently named the merger a priority for the region.{}

"A proactive and responsive development of a major comprehensive research university will provide increased undergraduate, graduate and advanced degree offerings to meet the current and growing demand for talent in engineering, IT and computer technologies. It will also dramatically increase our region's research and funding opportunities," said{}Bryan Derreberry, President and CEO of the Charleston Metro.

The legislation was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee and the sponsors will be asking for the bill to be considered as soon as possible.

The talks of a merger have persisted for decades.{}

In April of last year, talks were renewed once again on a proposed merger of the two schools and an informal committee was formed to explore the options for it.{}

In April, MUSC officials addressed the merger talks, saying a research facility that merges CofC and MUSC is "critical" to the city.

"The challenge is how to get from our somewhat fragmented collection of specialized institutions of higher education into a comprehensive network with more offerings at the graduate and professional level," said university officials.

MUSC representatives have yet to comment on the bill.