COLUMBIA — The College of Charleston might be allowed to sidestep a state law and offer doctoral degrees that align with area businesses’ needs, following a vote Tuesday by a key committee, months after legislators tried and failed to make the college a research university.
The Commission on Higher Education’s committee on academic affairs voted unanimously to change the college’s mission statement so that it can offer doctorate programs. The vote sends the recommendation to the full commission next month.
Commission members called the change part of a two-step process in eventually allowing other four-year universities to do the same.
College of Charleston Provost Brian McGee said South Carolina’s oldest college is likely still years away from offering the programs. A “yes” vote from the full commission would start the planning process. Proposals to offer specific degrees would then need approval from the commission and the accreditation board for Southern colleges.
“This is not a move for tomorrow but for this generation and future generations to come,” McGee said.
State law allows only research universities to offer doctoral degrees, limiting that ability to the University of South Carolina’s main campus in Columbia, Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina. MUSC offers only medical degrees.
Charleston-area lawmakers say businesses in the fast-growing Lowcountry, including Boeing, are clamoring for professionals with the advanced degrees they need in their workforce. But legislative efforts to provide business-related doctorate programs in Charleston failed in the session that ended in June.
A measure forcing a merger between the College of Charleston and MUSC quickly drew opposition from the board of the South’s oldest medical school. A proposal to expand the College of Charleston into a research university became attached to a bill allowing Clemson University to speed construction projects. Both ideas died with the House and Senate unable to agree on the compromise.
The recommendation approved Tuesday gets around state law by recognizing that a separate “University of Charleston, South Carolina” exists within the College of Charleston. The Legislature created the university-within-a-college distinction in 1992, as a way to separate the college’s historical identity as a liberal arts undergraduate school from its research and graduate programs.
“It’s a bit like the Trinitarian understanding of God. The College of Charleston is both two in one,” McGee said.
The proposed mission change would allow the school to expand its advanced courses beyond a master’s degree level.
“Our responsibility here first and foremost is to the students of South Carolina, secondly is to the economy and third to the institutions providing those degrees. I do think Charleston with its growth has a need for these degrees and classes,” said Commissioner Charles Munns of Aiken. “Staff has come up with a legal and efficient way to make this happen so it doesn’t set a precedent so as to not make things out of control in other places.”
Commissioner Natasha Hanna of Conway applauded staff for coming up with an “illusion” that meets the College of Charleston’s objective. But other four-year universities should have the same ability, she said. She argued the state’s doctorate ban hurts economic development and that removing it won’t hurt Clemson, Carolina or MUSC.
“I can’t help but look at this and say we keep creating niches to do what all institutions should be able to do,” said Hanna, who also sits on the board of Coastal Carolina University.
Munns said he strongly supports that, but it’s possible only by changing state law. The full commission will consider next month whether to lobby the Legislature next year for a change.
“I think we need to aggressively go after language change to allow us to consider what you’re suggesting,” he told Hanna.
Other than the College of Charleston, there are nine four-year public universities in South Carolina, which includes three University of South Carolina regional campuses.
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