BY ADAM PARKER
Now that the debate over the proposed College of Charleston-Medical University merger has matured a bit, a few concerns—some strident, some nuanced—have risen to the surface, along with what, to me, is a harsh reality check.
In my last post, I wrote that I thought it was time for the College to consider privatization. It might not be a welcomed option by some, nor easy, but it’s the only way to get a meddling Legislature off the school’s back and out of its business. The state of South Carolina consistently has been cutting its funding of higher education, and its contribution to the College’s annual budget now is less than 10 percent. With some effort, that money could be substituted, or the budget could be adjusted to make state largess irrelevant.
The big challenge of going private is how to transfer ownership and stewardship of all the property from the state to the College. This is an expensive proposition, but I believe it is possible to negotiate a deal with the state whereby it relinquishes the property without charging the College market value for it, and agrees to a long-term arrangement that includes tax breaks and other favorable financial terms. The state has no use for the buildings currently occupied by College students, faculty and administrators, and the College could mitigate any new financial obligations by claiming the property as a valuable asset. Suddenly it would have equity, and that, in turn, would present new budgetary opportunities.
Privatization is not an ideal solution. If I could wave a magic wand, I would point it at Columbia and get the General Assembly to quit all its shenanigans over guns and gays and properly fund higher education while at the same time providing it the respect it deserves. The presumptuous politicking of certain legislators who think they and not college professors know what’s best for students is embarrassing. But let’s be honest: Saul ain’t gonna become Paul anytime soon.
In response to my suggestion that the College should explore the privatization option, a friend and respected educator in the state called me to dissent. The thrust of his argument against privatization was economic. The pot of money everyone competes for is not big enough, he said. Other private schools in the state already are struggling. I pointed out that by rejecting this course of action, no good options are left. A merger is bad for a lot of reasons both obvious and hard to quantify, we agreed. The status quo surely is unacceptable. Getting more and better support from the General Assembly for current College operations is virtually impossible. And institutional expansion is a road so bumpy and expensive, it too might be unattainable in the short term.
So what’s left to do? My friend said: It might not be easy, it might take a while, but we have to replace current lawmakers with progressive people who care about the liberal arts and economic development and academic freedom and the advantages of public education, new elected officials who will restore funding with few or no strings attached, who will trust the professional, trained educators to do their jobs. What we need to do, my friend insisted, is get organized, engage in difficult debate, highlight the states failures and successes and inspire a new generation of forward-thinking people to step up and push out the hacks currently running the show in it the state capital.
It’s the sort of rallying cry that can get the blood flowing faster. For a while. I thought about this a little, and my pulse quickly returned to its normal, slower rate, for I realized that such an overhaul is highly unlikely. I hate to admit it, but the electoral system in South Carolina is designed to promote nepotism and mediocrity. The Legislature is populated by part-time lawmakers who either have enough wealth to afford a few years of the game, or by people who hold down regular jobs and layer on legislating. Elected officials are paid but a token salary, far from enough to live on. And they benefit from the existing good-ol’-boy system that rewards intransigence more than incremental change.
Constitutional carry? Creationism in the science classroom? “Promoting the lesbian lifestyle”? Really? These are the concerns of lawmakers today? They won’t even institute ethics reforms properly. What makes us think they would vote for a wholesale renovation of state politics? They stand to lose too much. Voters might succeed here and there in replacing a particularly harmful legislator with someone else, but it is not likely enough can be replaced to make a substantive difference in the way the state operates, especially concerning education. The system is corrupt, and the electorate is ill-prepared, easily distracted, busy trying to survive. So where does that leave us?
It is evident that the College of Charleston needs to reform. But how? Some among the anti-merger faculty have argued that the College must enforce its undergraduate emphasis and limit its graduate-level and post-graduate offerings. They claim that any Ph.D programs introduced would be merely adequate or worse since professors already are spread too thin. They point out that faculty are generally undercompensated today and often must teach three or four courses a semester, making research activities difficult. Why should they take on Ph.D students under these circumstances, without pay raises, undergraduate course reductions, and better research opportunities? And should those things come to pass, the skeptics worry that undergraduates will get short shrift. Tenured professors will spend more time with upper-level students, leaving the younger ones to adjuncts and lecturers.
Another assertion I’ve heard used to argue against developing Ph.D and post-doc programs at the College is one of supply and demand. There are too many graduates with advanced degrees and not enough jobs for them to fill, not in industry and certainly not in academia. While there is some truth to this (tenure-track university jobs are scarcer than ever), it is an overly simplistic assessment. As a professor-friend told me, post-doc positions typically are well paid; they are jobs. But they are not counted as jobs when employment figures are calculated, giving the illusion of severe underemployment in proportion to degree-holders. Additionally, we all know that the more education one gets, the better. Bachelor degrees are not usually sufficient for many professional positions. Even master degrees may not be enough anymore. It is self-defeating and contradictory to argue that universities should grant fewer advanced degrees because jobs are hard to find. Extending this logic leads to a black hole: Why bother getting a high school diploma, then? Why attend elementary school? The statistics show that the better educated you are, the more valuable you will become and the more money you will earn.
Another professor told me recently about a particularly talented math student who was clearly Ph.D material but unable to advance her education at the College. A mother of three, she could not leave Charleston to attend another school. After much finagling, the professor helped to arrange for her student to enroll at MUSC where she could pursue her subject but also was required to take biology and other science courses that had little or nothing to do with her interests or abilities. She did so anyway because she was brilliant and determined, but the experience certainly highlighted the College’s shortcomings.
The concerns raised by some of the faculty skeptics at the College surely are legitimate, but they should not stop a healthy debate over expanding the College’s graduate-level degree offerings, improving its programs and curriculum, strengthening its hiring and tenure requirements, offering more competitive salaries and making a number of other adjustments. And maybe one day it will make more sense to support some kind of institutional merger. Such change is a good idea not only because it would better serve students and provide new opportunities for faculty, but because the College’s well-being depends on it. Without the right kind of controlled growth and academic improvement (along with a visionary and capable leadership), the status of the College will slip; it will become less competitive, less able to attract quality students or prepare the ones it has for an uncertain future.
Currently, the College cannot issue Ph.D degrees because of legislative restrictions. A consortium called the Lowcountry Graduate Center—a collaboration between the College, The Citadel and MUSC—was established in 2001 “to expand the opportunities for graduate education.” Languishing, it offers very little now, only a couple of masters programs. The concept might be a good one, by its implementation has failed. Still, if adding graduate programs is deemed so essential, then a mechanism already exists that might be strengthened through new funding initiatives and reorganization. The remaining options for facilitating expansion are: (a) convince the General Assembly to change the rules, permitting the College to develop Ph.D and post-doc programs, or (b) sever the link with the state altogether—in other words, privatize.
Throwing the anti-intellectual bums out of the Statehouse is an invigorating idea, but not likely to succeed enough to change the cultural concerns and political priorities of our lawmakers, certainly not in the short-term. Merging with MUSC, at least at this stage, is broadly rejected by all but a few politicians and business leaders, and for good reason: it doesn’t make much sense. Mayor Joe Riley is only the latest to argue that a comprehensive research institution (Charleston University) is needed to generate employees who can support the needs of new industries and to create more area jobs. The presumption is that properly qualified graduates will stick around and help our local economy flower. Riley cites models: Duke, Harvard, Emory and the University of Virginia. Someone should show me the numbers. In my experience, its the research institution itself that employs the most Ph.D-carrying workers, especially in small and medium-sized communities. Many graduates of Emory are likely to find jobs nearby because nearby is a huge metropolitan area called Atlanta. Same goes for Harvard, which sits adjacent to Boston. Duke is nestled in North Carolina’s flourishing Research Triangle. But most graduates of, say, the University of Michigan, don’t stay in Ann Arbor. How many Penn State grads remain in College Station? How many Princeton grads find jobs in South Jersey?
The Charleston area is changing, growing, adding to certain industries besides hospitality and tourism, and this is good. The ability to grant more Ph.Ds is necessary. As a community we should be prepared for what the 21st century throws at us. We need engineers to build a sea wall, for example. We need writers and critics to serve as watchdogs. We need people well-versed in the latest technologies as well as the earliest histories. We need smarter politicians. (Idea: Since Ph.Ds are suddenly considered so important by politicians, let’s require all elected officials to possess one in something, anything.)
Keeping things the way they are won’t solve some very pressing problems. So, what then? What will the College do? Allow politicians to dictate its future, or take the bull by the horns?
Adam Parker is a journalist, advocate for the humanities and husband of a College of Charleston professor.