Winter 2012/13
Certainly, your leadership has resulted in a time of
tremendous change—possibly more than at any other
time in the university’s history.
I can only respond that I hope so [chuckles]. That was
the intent.
Before we go too deeply into that, though, I’d like to
talk about what originally attracted you to getting into
educational administration.
That’s a good question. I don’t recall giving higher education
a lot of thought. I knew, of course, that [former USD president]
Betty Turner Asher had resigned. Colette and I were having
dinner at a restaurant in downtown Vermillion, and Brendan
Johnson, then the student body president, walked by, greeted us
and said, “Why don’t you think about applying for this job?”
I gave the idea some thought and decided maybe I would be
a good candidate for the position.
What did getting the job mean to you, personally?
I would not have applied to be president anywhere but the
University of South Dakota. The emotional appeal was intense,
and I haven’t changed my mind one ounce about that. I don’t
know that I would like this job nearly as much if I hadn’t
graduated from USD as both an undergraduate and from the
School of Law.
How did your experiences as a student at USD help to
prepare you for your current duties?
I was not the greatest student, to be perfectly honest, but I
learned to write pretty well—thank you Nancy McCahren—
to express myself, and I learned some of the important things you
learn at a traditional liberal arts university. In various courses I was
confronted with problems, and in my extracurricular activities,
I learned a lot about how life works. Overall, I think I was in a
strong position to do a number of things, at least partially well.
That’s what liberal arts colleges and universities do. They prepare
you to operate in a world that’s constantly changing.
From your dual perspective as an alumnus and as president,
what do you think students get at USD that they can’t get
anywhere else?
We do many things well here, but I think the one thing we
do particularly well is that our students find a connection with
faculty that results in students doing things they didn’t even know
they could do or thinking in ways they never imagined. That’s the
USD story. I don’t ever hear an alum credit his or her success to a
great president or great administrator. That’s not what it’s about.
What people say to me is, “I am what I am today because of…
insert faculty member name.”
How has your on-campus educational experience informed
the choices you’ve made as president and the principles
that have guided your tenure?
I recognized right away one of the things we needed to do
was to significantly improve the campus. The renovation of
Old Main had just been completed [when I began my term].
Remember—the windows of Old Main had been boarded up
for 20 years. But overall, campus didn’t look very good. I looked
at the medical school, the basement of Slagle Hall where we had
admissions and the business school. I noted the lack of a wellness
center, and I thought the Student Union was unattractive and
outdated. And the Old Armory wasn’t being used as it is now
because it simply wasn’t in very good shape. So, it wasn’t hard
to see that these things needed to change if we were going to
make significant progress. I felt the thing I could surely do was
to help raise funds from USD alumni and friends to make those
things happen. And, as it turned out, the USD Foundation did
a wonderful job in making that happen. I played a part, but
much of the credit goes to Ted Muenster and our professional
fundraisers, along with our deans and vice presidents. We were
able to move forward on a number of projects and, I think, totally
transformed the campus.
In early October 2012, I sat down with James W. Abbott to chat about his more than
15 years of service as president of the University of South Dakota. Our wide-ranging
discussion provided a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of one of the longest-
serving and most transformative leaders the institution has ever known.
Abbott’s responses reveal a man who walks an intriguing tightrope between
humility and ambition—one who today possesses as many big ideas for moving
the university forward as when he assumed the presidency in 1997.
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