Something weird happened on the floor of the S.C. Senate last Thursday. It wouldn't have looked weird to a casual observer, but the subtext was pretty extraordinary.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) moved to have a bill, H. 4632 — the Charleston University Act — removed from the Senate Education Committee and placed directly on the calendar for floor debate. Former state senator and current Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the much loved president-elect of the College of Charleston, happily entertained the motion and was ready to put it to a vote.
Sen. John Courson (R-Richland), another grand old man of that chamber, objected. Courson chairs the Education Committee and understandably didn't like the bill's cheerleaders bypassing his committee's vetting. McConnell put the motion to a vote. It passed, 22-15.
I say it was weird because you rarely see one old guard senator hacking off another old guard senator over a procedural point. That just isn't done in what members decorously term "the deliberative body." Which means Sen. Leatherman wants this bill to pass — badly and soon.
So what does the bill do?
It's hard to say, exactly. For one, it's confusing. It would "designate the University of Charleston, South Carolina as a research institution." Now, I was under the impression that the only University of Charleston around was in West Virginia, but evidently, a University of Charleston was created at CofC some time back so the school could offer graduate degrees. This new "University of Charleston " expands on that notion; it'd be a research university that offers doctorate degrees. Also, both the University of Charleston and CofC would "each be established as separate budget sections in the annual appropriations bill." As such, the new university would be eligible for funding through the Centers of Economic Excellence program, commonly known as the Endowed Chairs program.
In English, please?
What the bill's supporters evidently want to do is start a graduate program at CofC and fund it through the Endowed Chairs program — a nebulous "economic development" fund created by legislative leaders to foster the "knowledge economy" and "attract high-skill jobs" and do a lot of other stuff that sounds nice but is in fact little more than a glorified corporate welfare program.
In any case, CofC isn't, and doesn't want to be, another "research" institution — another university, that is, that bankrolls doctorate programs in science and engineering and business and treats undergraduate teaching as an afterthought. The authors of the Charleston University Act seem to have anticipated this fear; they specified in the text of the bill that it will "not alter the designation of the College of Charleston as a four-year liberal arts college."
The bill has already passed the House, where — I'm told — McConnell testified in its favor. It's sponsored by the Charleston delegation's heavy-hitters: Speaker Harrell, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, Rep. Jim Merrill, and a few others.
What's it about, really? Again it's hard to say, but some lawmakers have alluded to a desire on the part of the Boeing Company to have a top-tier graduate program for computer engineering in Charleston. And in South Carolina's Statehouse, what Boeing wants, Boeing gets.
All this is perfectly in line with the current trend in state-driven economic development. At some point in the recent past, corporations realized they could get state and local government entities to train their workers for them. Rather than blow all that capital on teaching employees how to do useful things, they could persuade a few politicians to create "job training" programs at community colleges and establish new grad school programs at state universities. The politicians, always eager to be seen as "job creators," were happy to oblige, and so now job training is the responsibility of the taxpayer.
Nor is this the first time Boeing has somehow gotten state officials to create a university program. The University of South Carolina now has an aerospace engineering program primarily for the benefit of one giant aerospace company in North Charleston.
Hence this forthcoming grad program at the College of Charleston. I mean, at the University of Charleston — whatever that is.
As for the four-year liberal arts college, I feel pretty confident its faculty and alumni have no interest in the school becoming yet another Ph.D. mill. You may want to check with the school's new president on that.