Colleges As Playthings Of Politics
David B. Mendez
February 7, 2014
It is rare for the Democrats and Republicans in the South Carolina legislature to support the same cause with equal enthusiasm, but that happened recently, when both parties supported the merger of MUSC (the Medical University of South Carolina) and College of Charleston to form a single entity called Charleston University.
Why do the legislators support this possibility? The answer is simple – they think it's a good business deal. The sponsors of this bill, Republican Jim Merrill and Democrat Leon Stavrinakis came out with a joint announcement, saying that the business environment in South Carolina Lowcountry requires creating a workforce that will match the region's growing economy. According to their standings, besides being right for the advancement of higher education, the merger is convenient for business as well.
The chairman of the board of trustees at Medical University of South Carolina, Tom Stephenson, states otherwise. According to his estimation, the merger isn't based on mutual collaboration of these two institutions, and the project will probably end up costing millions of dollars. The three primary missions of the MUSC will still remain the same: providing great clinical care for South Carolina citizens, medical research, and great medical education. There is absolutely no need to merge this university with another institution, only to continue focusing on the same goals.
The charms of Charleston as good business
Even people who haven't stayed long in Charleston, S.C., feel this city's charm right from the first encounter. A walk through the downtown is enough to understand the city's enthusiasm in preserving its unique charisma. Wherever you turn, you see either genuinely old buildings or such that look old. Every stone around you has a history, and everyone will be delighted to tell you something exciting about the spot you are standing on.
Besides being beautiful for the eye, the charms of Charleston are also a good business. The tourists attracted by this city generate over $18 billion of annual revenue. Charleston's political leaders were smart enough to protect the uniqueness of the city instead of allowing uncontrolled changes.
This proposal for a merger of the College of Charleston, a liberal arts school, and MUSC, a research medical school, seems to defy the focus of leadership we've been used to. Nearly 80% of the faculty members at the College of Charleston are against the merger, despite the favorable attitude of P. George Benson, the outgoing president of the College.
Why do faculty members oppose this project? It's not because they are afraid of the expectations and demands of working at a research university (currently this liberal arts college doesn't offer PhD programs due to state law prohibition). The real reason is appreciation for the history and identity of the College of Charleston. The University of South Carolina and Clemson University are already functioning as large research universities in this region, and the need of a third one isn't particularly justified.
Being founded in 1770, the history of the College of Charleston goes behind the formation of the USA. This is the nation's 13th oldest institution of higher education, as well as the country's oldest municipal college. The reason why students come here is for the chance to interact with the faculty members due to the small classes. Regardless of the claims that it will be good for business, the merger will obstruct the meaningful experience students get here.
The most upsetting part is that politicians aren't interested in the students' comments about this merger, because they perceive public universities and colleges as a matter of plaything. The government of South Carolina has cut the budget on higher education by $38.8% during the period from 2008 to 2013. As a result, the tuition has been increased for significant 16.2%.
Politics involved in every aspect of education
Even when business is concerned, isn't the College of Charleston functioning well as a liberal arts college? Instead of being known as the state's 3rd ranked research university, it is better for the institution to remain focused on undergraduate education.
According to Bobby Harrell, the South Carolina House speaker and a co-sponsor of this bill, many companies in the region need a research university in order to benefit from its resources. However, that cause doesn't justify the aim to send almost 250 years of tradition in vain and create something without a realistic foundation. Blackbaud, Boeing and all other big companies located in the Lowcountry have the financial power and ability to come to any resources they want. They don't actually need a publicly supported university.
Different types of institutions for higher education play different roles and are catering to the needs of different students. There is no need to convert colleges focused on undergraduate education into research universities when they have already established a reputation catering to the needs of a particular group of students.