As president, it’s my job to think decades into the future and to make sure the College is on track to achieve its potential and its envisioned future.Over the past year, I’ve devoted a considerable amount of thought and time to one issue in particular: Charleston’s rapid economic transformation and its implications for the future of the city’s higher education institutions, particularly the College of Charleston.

I have discussed this issue with many of our region’s best minds and most capable leaders, including people from business, politics and higher education. I have sought their advice on ways the College could invest in and support the significant economic expansion taking place all around us in Charleston. One idea that I floated and that was immediately embraced in these conversations was that Charleston needs its own comprehensive research university, and that the College of Charleston should be a major player in its development. Yes, Charleston has the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and it is a research university, but it is not comprehensive.

Charleston’s Evolving Economy
Over the past 20 years, Charleston has evolved from a city whose economy was heavily reliant on the Navy and the tourism industry into a diverse, modern, complex economy that I call “New Charleston.” The growth of New Charleston has been fueled by the rapid expansion of a high-tech sector, the creation of thousands of manufacturing jobs, a thriving commercial real estate market and an influx of wealthy retirees.

The most significant catalyst, however, is Boeing. In just over three years, Boeing’s North Charleston workforce grew from zero to 6,200 employees to manufacture the 787 Dreamliner. With plans to consolidate a third of its U.S.- based information-technology functions in North Charleston, as well as plans to begin designing and engineering parts for the 737 airliner, it’s a safe bet that Boeing’s Lowcountry operations will add thousands of more jobs in the near future.
In response to these transformative economic factors, the College has revised its Strategic Plan. As I have written about in past columns, our original 2009 Strategic Plan called for us to exploit, but also nurture and support Charleston’s existing assets. These assets include the port, historic preservation, the ecology of the Lowcountry, the tourism industry, African American history, urban planning and the arts.

But as Charleston’s economy has expanded over the past few years, these traditional assets are no longer the only driving forces behind Charleston’s economy and its quality of life. The traditional assets are being joined by new and emerging assets in aerospace, health care and biosciences, and digital media and technology.

Our revised Strategic Plan calls for the College to take advantage of and nurture both Charleston’s existing and emerging assets. Our reciprocal relationship with these assets will help us differentiate the College from other universities throughout the nation and around the world.

Of course, other universities also see the growth and revenue opportunities in New Charleston. There are currently 28 universities and institutes with operations in Charleston – 21 for-profit private universities plus the College, MUSC, The Citadel, Trident Tech, Charleston Southern and a small collection of programs offered by Clemson and USC.

Another way to look at this, is we have five regular universities in metro Charleston and 23 branch or satellite campuses. The conclusion of the vast majority in our business and local government communities is that New Charleston needs its own comprehensive research university, not a collection of branch campuses. And the consensus is that the College should lead the development of this research university.

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. New Charleston wants more and needs more from the College – it needs us to become or develop a comprehensive research university.

Developing a Comprehensive Research University
For the first time ever New Charleston is on the same radar screen as Austin, Texas; The Research Triangle; Boston; Northern Virginia; and Silicon Valley. We’re on the screen, but we still have a long way to go before we measure up to the prominence and success of those areas. One reason? They are all supported by one or more comprehensive research universities.

Research universities employ top- notch resident faculty who are leaders in their academic fields; invest in research projects that create intellectual property, revenue streams and startup firms; and pump millions of dollars into their local communities through federal and private research grants.

In order for New Charleston to develop its own comprehensive research university, one of three things must happen: Option one: Convince the state legislature to make the College a research university. We would become the state’s fourth research university. This would allow us to pursue Ph.D. programs in fields important to New Charleston and more adequately invest in academic programs aligned with New Charleston’s emerging assets.

Option two: Merge the College and MUSC. Imagine an institution called Charleston University, the core of which would be the College of Charleston, similar to Harvard University and its Harvard College or Rutgers University and its Rutgers College. Around the arts and sciences core would be the professional schools: our business school and our school of education; and MUSC’s medical school, dental school, pharmacy school, health professions school and nursing school. Such a university would improve Charleston’s economy, its workforce and its quality of life. It also would encourage the strengthening of our existing academic disciplines and give our undergraduate students greater access to the health professions and medical research of MUSC.

Option three: If a merger can’t be achieved, significantly increase collaboration between the College and MUSC. This option would retain each university’s identity, history and traditions while providing many of the resources of a comprehensive research university.

There is almost no overlap between the College and MUSC. They complement each other and would fit together like two puzzle pieces. For example, MUSC’s health information systems work would be complemented by the work of our computer science department. Our philosophy department currently has general ethics courses and could collaborate with MUSC professors on developing curriculum for medical ethics courses. Our students in undergraduate public health could pursue grants and research opportunities with students and faculty in MUSC’s graduate public health program. Our chemistry department working together with MUSC’s pharmacy school could discover the next pharmaceutical breakthrough. And since health care is clearly big business these days, our business school could help to optimize the performance and quality of hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.

I first began publicly advocating for a merger or increased collaboration last fall. I had many discussions about these ideas with MUSC President Ray Greenberg before he stepped down this summer to take a position with the University of Texas System. Dr. Greenberg quickly saw what I was seeing and supported my ideas. Dr. Greenberg and I took these ideas to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who quickly became a major proponent of greater collaboration or a merger and has helped galvanize support in Charleston’s business community. The mayor and I took these ideas to the Metro Chamber of Commerce, and they became active advocates for the creation of a comprehensive research university.

In response to the positive community feedback, a joint College of Charleston/ MUSC committee was formed this past spring to study the feasibility of greater collaboration between the two universities. Additionally, a review committee that included faculty from each institution examined examples of similar collaborative agreements and mergers elsewhere in the country.

I am 100 percent confident that a merger or increased collaboration between the College and MUSC is the right thing to do. It will help us stimulate and nurture New Charleston and elevate the quality of our programs and the value we add to our students and their careers. As our city’s economy grows, so too should the role of her colleges and universities.

– President P. George Benson