First things first – I’m a proud graduate of the College of Charleston. Hugely proud. I’ve stayed in touch since graduating in 2010, donated (a small amount) every year, gone back and talked to classes, still communicate with my professors and dean, and have two siblings whose college lists include CofC near the top of their list. I would repeat my four years there in a heartbeat.
Earlier this month, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (a CofC graduate) and Rep. Jimmy Merrill (both representing Charleston) filed a bill in the SC legislature to merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina effective July 1, 2016. The move surprised many alumni, students, parents and the general public who were more shell-shocked at the new names of the merged university than anything – Charleston University with each respective downtown campus named Charleston University George Street Campus and Charleston University Medical Campus. But underneath statuses and posts claiming “I graduated from College of Charleston, NOT Charleston University” was a rallying call based on collegiate experience – an experience that cements itself into your soul and memory and last a lifetime.
Special note for everyone: College of Charleston achieved “university” status a good number of years ago, but chose to use “College of Charleston” as its public name, and it’s listed in the State budget as “University of Charleston” — so don’t get all out of line over the name change.
I understand the “urge to merge”, I really do. Of the three major state institutions (Clemson, USC, CofC), College of Charleston receives the least amount of state funding. When I left my part-time job at the College when I was a student, raising money for CofC (yes, I was one of those people who called you and asked for money), the school was getting only 8% of their budget from the state, compared to close to 25% at Clemson and USC. The largest factor in this low funding was the lack of a “research institution” designation for CofC. Merging MUSC with CofC would create a research institution, therefore opening the door to more state funding. On top of that, having a research institution in the Lowcountry is a very attractive idea. The ability to contract with companies, cities, the state and national agencies on important research projects is a huge positive – and a lucrative avenue. Plus, currently the Lowcountry lacks a region-wide collegiate footprint, which would help unite the entire area around one university instead of a handful. The merger also has the support of the SC Chamber of Commerce director Bobby Hitt, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Additionally, the merger opens the door for both institutions to offer full PhD programs, something currently not offered at CofC. This type of fluid movement from bachelor’s to doctorate, all under one umbrella is a great recruiting tool and adds to the cohesiveness of higher education around the state. This also means that the student base of the newly merged Charleston University would well exceed the 12,000 or so undergrads and graduate students currently enrolled at CofC and therefore would provide a larger tuition base, which theoretically could mean either a decrease in tuition costs or an increase in certain amenities and programs offered.
The honest truth is, College of Charleston has been driving this “merger train” for the past nine years or so – this is just the first year with legislation behind it. Current President, George Benson, in particular has been pushing a merger with MUSC over his entire tenure, which comes to an end this summer. Facing decreased state funding and, at least from this alumni’s point of view, a lack of involvement and especially enthusiasm from the State (when’s the last time Gov. Haley or any legislator has tweeted, posted, or mentioned CofC in their remarks before this year?), President Benson is not only facing cries for a merger, but also a move to become a private institution. Merging with another state-supported school (MUSC) would keep state funding intact, force the State Legislature to actually pay attention to the Lowcountry’s higher education and create a wider private funding base.
However, it seems President Benson, the Trustees, Rep. Stavrinakis and Rep. Merrill are force feeding us a merger that no one wants to happen.
Fact is, MUSC’s Faculty Senate has expressed their lack of support for this merger, CofC’s Faculty Senate has overwhelmingly said they are not in full support and, based on the public outcry over the past few weeks, it appears alumni, students and families are equally against this merger (there’s even a petition).
My personal reservations revolve around campus culture and funding priorities. First, enrollment and introductory class sizes are sure to increase to levels expected at Clemson and USC, and not sizes expected by students who choose CofC (and MUSC) over other institutions. There’s a reason the “CofC lifestyle” is unique – the tight-knit atmosphere around campus surrounded by the surprisingly cohesive metro area create an atmosphere unlike any other campus in the nation.
Fundraising efforts and priorities may also see a monumental shift over time. With research capabilities focused solely on the medical field, new funding opportunities never seen by either institution will open up without a doubt. But for the sake of the rest of “Charleston University”, priorities may move away from liberal arts programs, capital needs, and vital department needs. My worry here is that “Charleston University’s” fundraising arm will be dominated, and curated to, the medical field.
And most importantly, I fear a slow and gradual shift away from a liberal arts education focus. The driving force behind CofC’s academics is the idea that to truly make a difference in the world, we have to first understand the world. As the engraving over Porter’s Lodge on campus – which freshmen walk under on their way in, and seniors on their way out of, campus – says, “Know Thyself”, not “Know Only One Thing”.
I would rather see CofC and MUSC work on some additional creative partnerships and further develop current ones. There’s also been some talk of CofC taking over Charleston Law School – something that I believe fits their mission better than a medical research school, but that probably won’t happen anytime soon.
How do we stop this merger? The bright side of this merger process is that it is public and must be approved by the State Legislature. I would encourage you to email your Statehouse Representatives and encourage them to not support any effort to merge CofC and MUSC. Are you an Alumnus, but you don’t live in SC? Email Rep. Stavrinakis (he’s an alum, so he should understand) or President Benson.
One thing to watch closely is the selection of the next President of College of Charleston. President Benson will step down in June of 2014, and the Board of Trustees is already going over candidates. One name that is all over the press – mostly because he put it there, not because anyone asked him to – is Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell. McConnell is a CofC graduate who has supported the College over the years in many ways – he’s got a dormitory named after him. He brings an influential hand to the table, with business and political contacts like no one else, but lacks any academic experience. And he’s in favor of this merger. (Nothing says “faculty-friendly” or “approachable” like going against the majority of the faculty Lt. Gov McConnell!)
The bottom line is this: This merger seems to be something that a few people want, not what the institutions need.
When they need it, I’ll be all for it. But until they need it, I won’t stand for it.