South Carolina just got a little smarter


This morning I had the honor of meeting Martin Morad, who plans "to develop the world’s first pacemaker made from living tissue," and to do it right here in South Carolina. He’s the latest extraordinary individual that the endowed chairs program has brought here. (That’s him with Larry Wilson and Harris Pastides above. I think those are Ray Greenberg’s arms folded at left; I don’t know the lady in the background.)

There are a lot of things I could say about this guy, and I hope to come back here and say them later (right now, I’m stealing time from other things that need doing today in order to write this — as usual). For now, read the story that was on today’s front page.

I’ll just mention one thing that may seem small to you, but which marks a huge step in my mind…

If there is one thing that holds South Carolina back economically, politically, socially and in every other way more than anything else, it’s fragmentation. Our government is completely dysfunctional thanks to the fragmentation of authority and accountability in the executive branch. On the local level, you see fractals reflecting the same pattern — Columbia as an economic entity can’t get its act together because it’s split into about a dozen municipalities, two counties, seven school districts, various special purpose districts, etc. Even when you distill it down to the tiny political entity that is technically Columbia, political power is fragmented across a seven-member council with no one, elected individual in a position to be responsible for the big picture.

In the realm of higher education, fragmentation has taken us into some amazingly stupid realms in our recent history. First, there is the fact that each of our colleges and semi-colleges is a political entity unto itself, answerable to no one but each institution’s respective board of trustees, each member of which is elected by the 170 members of the General Assembly. This has led to such things as the battle over supercomputers in the late 80s, right after I came back to SC to work at this newspaper — if USC was going to get a supercomputer, then the political "logic" of this state was what Clemson had to have one, too.

We have the charade of a coordinating body — the Commission on Higher Education — which is, by legislative decree, toothless. (Coincidentally, the new head of the CHE is coming to meet the editorial board this afternoon, which puts this even more immediately in mind.) But there is nothing like, say, a board of regents with real power to assign missions, coordinate and focus resources and avoid duplication.

In the last few years, we have been fortunate in that the three presidents of our research institutions — Andrew Sorensen, Ray Greenberg and James Barker — have formed an alliance to work together on a variety of fronts to accomplish some of the things that a unified, rational system of public higher education was accomplished. One of the greatest factors encouraging this relationship to flourish — giving it an undeniable economic impetus — is the endowed chairs program.

Anyway, here’s the thing about Dr. Morad that is in its way as remarkable for South Carolina as, say, developing a living pacemaker: He is the first faculty member in the history of the state to be simultaneously hired by all three research universities at once. (Why? Because it took all three institutions to come up with the talent he needs to make his project happen — which suggests that maybe we should start referring to the three, and governing them, as one institution; put them together, and you’ve got something impressive.) Therefore he embodies the combination of our resources to achieve great things that our petty divisions have kept us from accomplishing in the past. He is the New South Carolinian, the Adam in our new-tech Garden of Eden.

I’ll stop with the metaphors now. Suffice it to say, his arrival in this, his new home, is a big deal for South Carolina.

25 thoughts on “South Carolina just got a little smarter

  1. Lee Muller

    What makes politicians smart enough to pick the winners and losers in biomedical research?
    Remember that all the tax money given to one researcher in a big grant, was money taken from the pool of private investment money.
    Legislators and journalists are mostly quite uneducated in these fields, and easily dazzled by academics. They certainly have no ability to apply any system of valuation or comparison, and they don’t want to appear to be backwards, so they steamrolled.
    Clemson has one of the oldest biomedical engineering programs in the US, but it is nowhere near medical school or teaching hospital. USC has dozens of research projects with medical applications, but there little coordination between the departments, much less with the Medical School a few miles away.

  2. Lee Muller

    Your feeling good about “doing something” you don’t understand is exactly my complaint. I am not opposed to medical research – I have done a bit of it at Duke and for private pharmaceutical and medical device companies. I just think there is an awful lot of money being thrown around at glamour research and celebrity researchers in what is status-seeking by the universities, from a relatively small treasury.
    Not only does tax-funded research come at the expense of private research, but putting large sums into a few glamour programs starves dozens of less-expensive R&D projects which might have equal potential.
    I would like to see USC and Clemson get a handle on their projects and leverage them through better coordination. They also need to provide graduate research programs for part-time engineers and scientists who work in the community, instead of dismantling these programs.

  3. weldon VII

    “…If USC was going to get a supercomputer, then the political “logic” of this state was what (that?) Clemson had to have one, too.”
    Certainly, Brad. Clemson is an engineering school. USC is a liberal arts school with a good graduate business program. A supercomputer would have fit Clemson’s mission much better than it did Carolina’s.
    But, of course, Clemson was the one destined merely “to have one, too” because the legislature is a block from USC’s campus.
    Furthermore, listing Barker third on the list of S.C. research university presidents is like putting Mark Twain third on a list of American novelists behind James Fenimore Cooper and Stephen King.
    After all, Clemson’s governmentally endowed chairs have produced something for South Carolina’s economy. USC’s have, well, sucked up state money.

  4. Lee Muller

    USC had a good relationship with NCR, who provided a lot of computers for research. The problem is that USC and the City of Columbia had nothing of depth, so when NCR closed most operations, a lot of talent which could have benefitted Columbia was gone to other states.
    Part of that is the mentality of local management, the Chamber of Commerce, and industrial recruiters, who focus on keeping salaries and wages down in Columbia. NCR competes with Japan and California, and you have to pay competitive wages to buy competitive engineering talent.
    Lindsay Graham has bought the Microsoft line and is a cheerleader for increasing the quotas for more cheap, mediocre Indian H1-B programmers to work here.

  5. slugger

    The comment by Lee that the Legislators and Journalist are mostly uneducated in these fields and easily dazzled by academics is a very true statement.
    I have sat on a hospital board of trustees in this state and heard people come before the board with proposals that were bought by the board hook-line-sinker with a first vote without any background check to determine the need and feasibility of the proposed presentation.
    The old saying that you should look before you leap is about doing your homework and finding out whether or not what you are asked to vote into acceptance is what is best for everyone. Not what is best for the person or company that is presenting the matter for you acceptance. (If it sounds too good to be usually is).
    I will only give you one example of lawmakers leaping before they look. It is called ethanol. The bill was to reward farmers for their vote and to continue the supplements to the farmers for putting their crops in the soil bank program. Ethanol is nothing but a sham to take tax money to give to the farmers to grow corn for a bioproduct to put in your auto and at the same time telling you that this will cut down the consumption on the demand for oil and reduce the price of gas.
    I could go on and on about ethanol. I am currently fighting two ethanol plants from coming to my county.
    Bottom line. Just because your legislator says it is a good thing (no matter the subject) you have no way of knowing whether or not he or she knows anything about the subject matter before they cast their vote.

  6. Brad Warthen

    I’m not sure I followed that. How did your experience on the hospital board relate to the supposed gullibility of legislators or journalists?

    And who said anything about legislators anyway?

    Anyway, to return to the subject at hand. If either slugger or Lee would like to stack their resumes alongside Dr. Morad’s, they should go right ahead. If either of them has better credentials in his field than he does, I will stand corrected as an excessively credulous scribe.

  7. weldon VII

    Good phrase, Brad: “excessively credulous scribe.” I love it when you earn your keep. Keep those zingers coming.

  8. Lee Muller

    Brad, why don’t you post your credentials for evaluating spending allocations on research budgets, since my point was that journalists and legislators lack the education to avoid being suckered?

  9. Ralph Hightower

    I have to disagree with Lee Muller on some of the history of NCR.
    Yes, NCR has relationships with USC.
    But the demise of NCR happened when AT&T wanted to also be a computer company (never mind that they developed the UNIX operating system) and since they had failures manufacturing computers, they initiated a hostile takeover of NCR.
    We, the NCR employees, derisively called AT&T’s CEO, Bob Allen, “Mr. Rogers” since he tried to be sincere appearing in videos wearing a “Mr. Rogers” type sweater, during “fireside chats” with NCR employees to reassure them of AT&T’s well intentions while NCR’s CEO, Chuck Exley, was defending the company from the hostile takeover. One of Chuck’s great quotes was “AT&T should change their slogan from ‘Reach Out and Touch Someone’ to ‘Reach Out and Grab Someone’.
    After the takeover was complete, AT&T reneged on their promise “We won’t change a thing.”, installing their “deadwood” that were nearing retirement age into NCR, and changing the NCR name to AT&T-Global Information Systems. AT&T basically raped and pillaged the company. The “Death Star” eventually spun NCR back out to independent status, but NCR was not what it once was during the glory days.
    The recession of 2000-2001 closed many technology companies that were started by former NCR employees.
    NCR E&M-Columbia was at one time a technology magnet for the Columbia metropolitan area. The products were designed and manufactured in West Columbia; software was developed in West Columbia.
    I still see many of my former coworkers. Some work for national companies, others work for local companies; others are scattered to the four winds.
    It was a fun time.

  10. Lee Muller

    AT&T was in the computer business for decades before it bought NCR. They developed the WE32000-based 3B2 series to run the phone systems, and sold it through VARs for Unix vertical applications.
    NCR had a lot of good talent, but I also saw a lot of management that was more committed to starting a business on the side, or knitting a larger golden parachute. When AT&T spun NCR back off with over a $BILLION cash for operations, NCR blew it all chasingn 100 different business visions, at the expense of their core product lines and reputation.
    It’s a tale of two great companies being poorly managed, a marriage and divorce of two shipwrecked entities.
    That history aside, USC and the city of Columbia was asleep. I compare them to Indianapolis, under the leadership of Dick Lugar. When the automobile industry was in a slump, and thousands of heavy-industry employees were being laid off, Dick Lugar rallied the city to believe in itself, for those with money to invest in new startups, and for those laid off to remain there and become entrepreneurs. Within 10 years, there were over 400 real new high-tech businesses and 2,000 new millionaires from those businesses.
    Or we could just compare USC or Clemson to Georgia Tech and the growth of Atlanta.

  11. Ralph Hightower

    So, you want to sit on the interstate for three hours to get to work and spend another three hours to get back home. I suggest that you move to Atlanta or Charlotte.
    I am sorry, but there is more to life than sitting in gridlock to get to work and get back home.
    Yes, this saga of NCR and AT&T is a tale of two shipwrecked companies. But I think in the end, many in NCR manglement were AT&T clones.
    I did an EBay search of WE32000 and there are no sells. I thought the NCR TOWER 32/200, a book shelf sized computer, would revolutionize the personal computer market. There are some, like me, that preferred UNIX with X-Windows over MS-DOS. I didn’t switch over to the “dark side” until Windows 3.1 and Windows Word. It wasn’t until Linux hit the public consciousness of some realized that there is an alternative to MS-DOS and Windows. My wife bought me a Sun SPARCStation from a salvage sale for me to keep my UNIX skills up. Since then, our home network has added Linux servers.
    PS: Do you have any links to replacement parts for a DEC VAX? I rescued one before it was tossed into the dumpster. I plan to install BSD on it. Unless my job requires it, I am not going to use VMS.

  12. Brad Warthen

    Not that I know of. Fortunately, I don’t ever have the desire to go to Charlotte. It’s bad enough that I had to drive past it the last three times I went to NYC to ride the subway (each time, I had to go to central Pennsylvania first; hence the route).

    But as long as we’re referring to things by three initials, at least CLT has HOV lanes.

  13. Lee Muller

    Cheapskate local businessmen are counting on people who will settle for making half what they could in Atlanta because they prefer whatever else Columbia offers. That’s fine for the employer and the worker, but it isn’t going to make Columbia businesses competitive with the world. They are still thinking about competing with Greenville, Charleston, and Atlanta, long after the stakes were raised.
    South Carolina has a lot of slack attitudes and anti-business laws to clean up before it can attract and keep fast-growing, competitive companies. I see today where SC was ranked 3rd from the bottom in business climate.

  14. Ralph Hightower

    Do you have the link to the survey that ranks SC at 47? Surveys are frequently crafted to satisfy the goals of the entity conducting the survey to push their goals.
    Can Columbia have the high salaries of Charlotte and Atlanta with none of the headaches of the highway gridlock of Atlanta and Charlotte and maintain the quality of life?

  15. Lee Muller

    Tell me how any business in Columbia or anywhere else can expect to compete internationally while paying wages 25 to 50% below their competitors in Charlotte and Atlanta which are withing commuting distance?
    Two mediocre $75,000 engineers are not the equivalent of one $150,000 engineer. Neither are 4 or 8 of the mediocre engineers.

  16. Lee Muller

    Charlotte has been building a rinky dink light rail since 1999. It is currently 700% over budget, but a lot of that is due to the usual lying about these sorts of projects.
    After a bunch of spending scandals, and private FOIA lawsuits revealed that millions were being diverted to prop up the bus system, some directors resigned.
    Then the newspaper and Chamber of Commerce teamed up with UNC Charlotte to gin up some phony studies about how beneficial the rail would be. Insiders revealed the emails between Observer editors, Chamber officers, and UNCC professors, and UNCC apologized for getting caught.
    The special sale tax was expiring and needed a referendum to be reinstated, so the rail contractors set up several PACs to fund a scare campaign, telling the elderly that their property taxes would double and the poor that the busses would stop running. So the tax passed, and the waste continues, the developers, engineers, and contractors make millions.

  17. rick campbell

    …the topic is south carolina gets a little smarter….what happened?….did lee muller take his band of idiots to north carolina?…one can only hope

  18. rick campbell

    not at all…your spelling however is hard to follow for a 3rd grader used to spelling words correctly…

  19. Lee Muller

    Were you trying to write a sentence, rick?
    Try to collect your thoughts and talk about an idea. No one cares about your hatred of those who bring facts to the discussion.

  20. Mike Davis

    I met Dr. Morad today in Charleston. He is super smart. I found out that he is originally from Iran. I have seen a few Iranian scientists moved to SC in the last few years. I am glad. These people are smart and have faster pace of life compared to us in South. I hope they can improve our pace of life by making the world’s first pacemaker from living tissue!

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