As faculty meetings about potentially drastic changes in a school's future go, the Sept. 3 forum where College of Charleston professors learned about a possible merge with the Medical University of South Carolina was relatively peaceful. Compared to the mounting furor over the Charleston School of Law's planned sale to InfiLaw Systems, the Q&A session with CofC leadership was positively tame.
Still, the professors who filled the Stern Center Ballroom to hear the news expressed a few concerns, and they left the room with a few unanswered questions: Will there be a full merger with MUSC, a smaller-scale partnership, or nothing at all? How will CofC's primarily undergraduate student body interact with MUSC's large grad school? And what will a renewed focus on scientific research mean for the future of CofC's liberal arts programs, which have long been the school's bread and butter?
The answers to those questions might be slow in coming. Talks between the two downtown schools are still in the exploratory phase, with a task force of faculty and staff from both institutions looking at options for a closer relationship. According to CofC Provost George Hynd, who spoke at the Sept. 3 meeting, the task force is considering 12 different models based on other colleges and universities that have entered into partnerships. Among those models are six mergers and six collaborations, partnerships, or consortia.
"The way the conversations are moving right now, we're moving toward very specific and highly focused programs that may or may not result in moving toward Ph.D. collaborations," Hynd said. "But I think it would be — and I'm going out on a limb here right now — safe to say there is relatively less enthusiasm for changing the culture of the college in any way, shape, or form."
Talks about a merger between the two schools started in the state legislature before the 2013 session began. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston-area Democrat, says he favors a full merger of the two schools to help meet an expanding need for advanced degrees in the Lowcountry. "I find it hard to believe that some limited partnership is going to meet the needs that are coming," Stavrinakis says.
Stavrinakis says he and Daniel Island Rep. Jim Merrill would support a bill for a merger in the 2014 session. "I'm still letting the schools work through the process," he says. "What I'm looking for from them is confirmation that it's a good idea. There will be a lot of institutional resistance to that big of a change. Jim Merrill and I started pushing this, and as long as we are convinced that it's the right thing to do, we plan to move forward."
Currently, since the College of Charleston is not considered a research university, state law prohibits the school from offering doctoral programs. A merger could help the college clear that hurdle. Hynd says potential areas where the school could expand its offerings include neuroscience, public health, biomedical and health informatics, biomedical imaging and physics, marine biology, psychiatry, and psychology.
Hynd says the two schools could hire professors jointly, and researchers from different disciplines at the two schools could collaborate more closely. He gives the hypothetical example of a physicist at CofC developing a new high-frequency imaging technology in partnership with medical imaging researchers at MUSC. "Our thought is that through that collaboration, we will be contributing to the local economy through education and Ph.D.s who are doing research that might benefit the medical industry and might result in new patents or new inventions," Hynd says.
On the other side of the proposed partnership, MUSC has shown some trepidation about the idea. Speaking to the Post and Courier in early August, then-MUSC President Ray Greenberg said merger talks should not be rushed. "They're very different institutions, different cultures, different ways in which they operate, and you don't just slap two different entities together," Greenberg said at the time. MUSC's spokesman from the task force could not be reached for comment at press time.
A lot remains up in the air for the two historic schools, both of which are currently looking for new presidents. But as Hynd pointed out at the faculty meeting, this is not the first time MUSC and CofC have talked about working more closely together. In fact, by Hynd's count, the schools have discussed the idea nine times in the past, with mixed results. The most visible result of those previous talks is the Lowcountry Graduate Center, a joint campus built in 2001 near the Tanger Outlets in North Charleston where CofC, MUSC, the Citadel, the University of South Carolina, and Clemson University offer certain graduate-level programs and certificates.
Looking at other colleges and universities that have merged in the past, Hynd says he sees at least one cautionary tale at Georgia Regents University. Formed in 2012 in Augusta, Ga., out of a merger between Georgia Health Sciences University and Augusta State University, the school was pitched to legislators as a way to streamline school administration, but the administrative savings never materialized. A merger between CofC and MUSC, he says, should not be seen as a cost-cutting measure.
The next step in the process will come on Thursday, the task force's deadline for delivering a white paper detailing the pros and cons of the 12 merger and partnership models. Hynd says the leadership of the two schools and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce will continue to hammer out the details through October and November. Hynd and other school leaders will continue to solicit input from professors and will possibly make site visits to see how mergers are working in other cities.
With CofC making eyes at the medical university down the street, one question seemed to underpin many of the faculty questions at the Sept. 3 meeting: Whither go the humanities?
History professor Irina Gigova put the question directly: "What happens to the liberal arts model in a future that has all these new programs? Are the liberal arts to be preserved, or is it something that will eventually wither away?"
Later, Gigova expounded on her concerns, which she says have been echoed by other professors in the social sciences. "It's not a secret that the humanities and social sciences are not viewed very well these days as disciplines in terms of how they are not practical," she said. "They don't necessarily bring money in, they don't bring grants in, and so in a way we're seen as somewhat redundant. But in the humanities and social sciences, we actually believe that we are still a very important part of education in terms of creating well-rounded citizens who are actively engaged in society."
Hynd says the talks with MUSC are not meant either to increase overall enrollment or to take away from the existing liberal arts programs. "Simply because we might move to offer more career-oriented degrees, it shouldn't be viewed as taking anything away from the commitment to the liberal arts tradition," he says.
Looking forward, Gigova says she hopes faculty members will be included in the process. "I personally was not satisfied with the answers we heard," she says. "I don't think that the staff, the faculty, nor the alumni or the current students are really integrated in these discussions about what they want to see out of this institution. It seems to me it is driven purely by outside concerns and needs and visions."