The South Dakotan
You’re being very modest when it comes to your part in
one of the largest—if not the largest—fundraising efforts
in South Dakota history.
I think it might have been. Our goal was $60 million, and we
raised about $134 million. But keep in mind we’re now in the
process of looking to the future and our next drive will be moving
forward with a goal of $250 million. Of course, we have needs
significantly in excess of $250 million so we’d be happy to exceed
our goal.
The fruits of your time and efforts are evident throughout
campus. What goals remain for your time as president?
First, I really would like to bolster the number and dollar
amount of scholarships we are able to award to our students.
We are virtually the only state in the union that does not have a
need-based public scholarship. That’s unfortunate. Our students
have significant need, and I would like to be able to raise enough
money to at least partially fill that need.
We still have some building needs left. The law school needs
renovating; the fine arts facility certainly needs a facelift and
renovation. I would like to make the basketball arena a reality
instead of just a dream. I have never liked watching basketball in
the DakotaDome. I want an outdoor track. These athletics needs
can be in process in the next couple of years. Our health sciences
programs need new facilities. I’d love to be able to expand the
National Music Museum. They have plans drawn up to do that,
and I’d like to make that happen, too.
Considering the vagaries of state support, I also think it’s
important to endow faculty positions, whether that means total
support or augmenting their salaries. We have to be able to
retain our best professors and need to attract new ones. Then
there are some other things I’d really love to have, like a major
leadership speaker series. I think the public service component of
the university is vitally important and a major leadership speaker
series would help to support that.
The university is celebrating its sesquicentennial this
year—150 years. Going into your 16th year as president,
you’re a significant part of that history, more than a tenth
of the total. To have stayed with USD for so long, something
in what you do, or about this place, must bring you quite a
bit of joy.
Graduation day. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re
first or last. You’ve graduated. That’s a perfect day. It’s always a
joy to watch the transformation of students who come to USD,
perhaps a little shy and unsure and, somehow, four years later you
see them feeling proud, capable and ready to move forward with
their lives. That’s a great feeling.
If the Alumni Association ever puts together another
sesquicentennial retrospective book, what do you hope
the chapter on President James W. Abbott says?
I just hope it says the University of South Dakota made
substantial progress during my tenure.
Is there anything you wish would have turned
out differently?
Other than my forays into politics, I think we did pretty well.
I look back and think I was probably overly ambitious in some
ways. I don’t regret running for governor, but I regret I wasn’t
more patient, that I sometimes forged ahead when I shouldn’t
have. But I feel pretty good about my life so far, and I was very
lucky…Colette was always willing to let me do what I wanted to
do even when she didn’t think it was a good idea. That has always
been a blessing. However, whenever people ask me if I’d ever
want to get back into politics, I tell them I like being married to
Colette. That was nothing she ever aspired to, and she was very
happy here—and I was too. I just got antsy. Some itches you just
have to scratch. Things turned out for the best.
What is the outlook for your presidency?
Well, I want to complete this upcoming fund drive. It’s going
to take a massive effort to raise those funds—upwards of
$250 million—and I want to commit myself to that. I don’t
know how long that will take, but I’m happy to do it and I’d like
to get it done. But, I also realize that I’m 64, and that my shelf
life is limited.
What do you think will be the keys to the university’s
success in the next 150 years?
I don’t think I can project that far ahead, but I believe our
near-term focus should be on making USD a regional university,
now and into the future. Part of our current rebranding effort is
to become a much more regional institution. That’s really what
our D-I transition is all about. It’s not all about athletics; it’s
about playing up in both academics and athletics, but it’s also
about becoming a university with broader appeal. We have greater
competition in a shrinking area, so has to be about more than
being a South Dakota university.
Complete this sentence for me: “I hope every
USD student’s experience, now and into the future,
results in…”
The belief that he or she is prepared for the future—
a future that will change many times in the course of their lives.
‘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.’ —James W. Abbott
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