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    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Colleges as Political Playthings
February 7, 2014 - 7:51am

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats in the South Carolina legislature got together to propose that the College of Charleston (my employer) and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) merge to form “Charleston University.”

The legislators believe it's “good business.” As the bill’s co-sponsors, Democrat Leon Stavrinakis and Republican Jim Merrill, said in a joint announcement, “This proposal is a response to business demands in the Lowcountry to create a workforce to match our growing economy. The bottom line is, this merger is long overdue -- it is right for business; it is right for higher education; it is right for the Lowcountry; it is right for South Carolina; and it is our obligation as legislators to deliver."

Tom Stephenson, Chairman of the MUSC board of trustees believes otherwise. He told the Charleston Post and Courier, “I do not believe any synergies are involved in merging the two institutions and, in fact, believe it will cost many millions of dollars. I also believe it will divert MUSC from its three primary missions: providing great medical education, engaging in medical research and providing great clinical care for the citizens of South Carolina."

But never mind, it’s “Right for business.”

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I have not lived in Charleston, S.C., for long, but even the briefest of visitors understands the city’s charm.

A stroll, or better yet, a horse drawn carriage ride through the downtown reveals the fervor with which the city has embraced preservation. Everything is either genuinely old, or old-looking. There is history in every step and just about anyone can tell you something interesting about the spot you’re standing on. By law, nothing is allowed to be taller than our church steeples, the tallest of those being St. Matthew’s on King St., which tops out at 255 feet.

This charm has been good business. Conde Nast Traveler named Charleston the #1 city in the United States and #5 in the world, ahead of other cities called Rome and Vienna. Tourism generates more than $18 billion in revenue annually.

Rather than allow unchecked growth, Charleston’s leaders have embraced what’s unique about our city and take care to protect it, even as they nurture controlled growth and redevelopment. They seem to be wary of making Charleston the city into something it isn’t or shouldn’t be.

The same can’t be said for the proposal to merge MUSC, a research medical school, and College of Charleston, a liberal arts college that is currently prohibited by state law from offering Ph.D.s.

While the outgoing president of College of Charleston, P. George Benson, has long been in favor of the merger, nearly 80% of the faculty are against it.

The faculty do not oppose the merger because they are afraid of the demands of working at a research university. Rather, the faculty have an appreciation of what gives College of Charleston its identity, an ethos of close contact between faculty and undergraduate students. South Carolina also already has two large research universities in Clemson and USC.

College of Charleston is older than the United States of America, having been founded in 1770. It’s the oldest municipal college in the country, 13th oldest institution of higher education in the nation, period. If you ask students why they come here, it’s for the small classes and the chance to interact with faculty, to be at a place that’s not subsumed by a football team.

Faculty know that a merger will, more than likely, be very bad for our business, that is if we define the business of the college as giving students a meaningful experience.

You don’t see a single mention of students in the comments from the legislators because to them our public colleges and universities are a kind of plaything.

The particularly galling part is that they’re more careless with their playthings than my dogs, who like to destroy everything they touch.

From 2008-2013, South Carolina has cut state spending on higher education (inflation adjusted) by 38.8%, or minus $3405 per student. In response, tuition has risen “only” 16.2% ($1491 dollars per student).

Meanwhile, in addition to the merger, the chairman of the South Carolina’s House Ways and Means committee, Brian White, wants to bring in outside consultants to find ways to check the “unsustainable growth pattern” of the public higher ed institutions.

This is like looking at the Biggest Loser champion and insisting she could lose more weight, perhaps by lopping off a limb.

Even in business terms, aren't we better off being a liberal arts college focused on undergraduate education than the 3rd ranked research university in a state not exactly known for education?

But business calls, and so the legislators start batting around their plaything. The SC House speaker, Bobby Harrell, a co-sponsor of the bill, makes the rationale even clearer, “Boeing or Blackbaud or any number of companies that are in the Lowcountry -- they need the resources of a comprehensive research university.”

So because Boeing – already a corporate welfare recipient to the tune of $450 million from the state – needs a public supported university, we should apparently destroy nearly 250 years of tradition.

Maybe we should invite Donald Trump to redevelop Rainbow Row.

Or maybe if Boeing needs a university they should pay for it.

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Share your stories of politicians treating higher ed in your state like playthings in the comments, or on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

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