Looking to the future: “Charleston University”

What will happen if you merge two established institutions? Graphic by Colin Johnson. MUSC courtesy of MUSC.

What will happen if you merge two established institutions? Graphic by Colin Johnson. MUSC image courtesy of MUSC.

We have been called the College of Charleston since before our country became the United States of America. However, there are some big discussions in the state legislature that could change not only our name, but the focus of the College

On Feb. 6, state legislators filed the “Charleston University Act” with the South Carolina General Assembly. If passed, this bill will merge the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina into a single, comprehensive research university, similar to Clemson and the University of South Carolina.

College president George Benson has been a major supporter of this movement and has advocated for greater collaboration or a merger between the two schools for over a year and a half. “My job as president is to look out into the future, [and make sure] we do the right thing for the state and community. When community is transforming, as the college president, you have to ask, what can we do help support this growth?” Benson said in a recent interview.

Benson also introduced the idea of “New Charleston.” This term defines the change in Charleston’s economy developing past its traditional ventures, such as tourism, historic preservation and maritime ecology, and moving into new scientific fields: biosciences, healthcare and aerospace (with the introduction of Boeing). In a recent editorial, Benson wrote, “If the College does not step up to satisfy the demands of New Charleston, we risk losing our leadership role as a major economic contributor and hub of academic excellence.”

When asked whether his retirement this summer would affect the merger, Benson said, “The ball is rolling, I just hope the next president keeps it rolling.” A few hours after this interview, the Post and Courier broke with their story on the “Charleston University Act” being filed in the State House by Representatives Jim Merrill and Leon Stavrinakis. Apparently Benson had a lot of momentum behind his rolling ball.

In a recent statement the Reps. said, “This proposal is a response to business demands in the Lowcountry to create a workforce to match our growing economy, and ensures the long term excellence of the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.”

With the bill so new, it is still unclear what the effect this will have on College of Charleston students. But if the bill were to go through, a lot would change, starting with our name. According to the proposed bill, the combined school would become Charleston University. MUSC would become Charleston University Medical Campus; the College of Charleston would become Charleston University George Street Campus (CUGSC).

Benson suggested students should be less fixated on the proposed name and more concerned with the changes the merger will bring.“That’s just a name they put down on the bill. That will change,” he said.

One of the worries most prevalent on student minds is the threat to the core aims of our college. The College of Charleston has always been known for its attention to undergraduate students. More opportunities are afforded to undergraduates at a small, liberal arts college, than at a large research university. “We applied here to find a new planet, investigate a cure for cancer or write a bachelor’s essay [as undergrads],” said the Student Government Association Secretary and undergraduate student Ryan Spraker at a recent discussion forum. Many students fear that with the change from a liberal arts college to a university, research opportunities available to undergrads would be off the table, with the College’s focus shifting to graduate studies.

A merger with MUSC could also bring changes the College made sure to avoid in the past. The average class size has been twenty-six, a number that the school has been very proud of. This number could dramatically increase for undergraduate classes, creating a different learning atmosphere entirely, one with large lecture halls and little one-on-one communication between students and professors. Undergraduate classes would also be more likely taught by Teacher’s Assistants, rather than professors themselves, as is more common in large research universities.

At a recent faculty discussion forum, many professors raised their concerns over the bill. Comments ranged from cautionary to complete disagreement:

• “We teach people how to approach answering questions. A Ph.D program shows people how to ask questions. This is completely different… We’re not equipped for it. It can’t happen from above; it’s unrealistic.”

• “We have two institutions in town looking for presidents. I can’t think of anything more irresponsible [than a merger right now]. What candidate would take a job that might disappear?”

• “I question the political legislators’ motives…  This is not something that came out of the woodwork. On the timing, it’s no secret that a lot of politicians have been trying to influence the presidential search on the campus… I don’t think the timing is coincidence.”

• “We are opposed to this legislation… being pushed on us. That is going to make any kind of merger harder if this is ever actually going to happen.”

English professor Mike Duvall has been with the College for over eight years. His response to the Post and Courier article about the bill was emotionally charged. “I don’t remember either of [the representatives that filed the bill] bothering to talk to the faculty at the College before submitting the bill,” he said. ”But they sure as hell talked to the Chamber of Commerce and clearly believe deeply [that] we’re supposed to create an economic boom and it isn’t going to cost us anything – magical thinking that could cost us everything.”

It should be noted that this is not the first time a merger has been proposed. In 1824, the College was first approached by the future founders of MUSC. With a choice that surely shaped the way both our schools developed, our leaders turned down the offer. Maybe the outcome today will be the same. However, we did not have a House bill being discussed in 1824.

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