Duffett discusses departureDWU president reflects on successes, future of school.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Bob Duffett expected to be fired at the end of his first year as president of Dakota Wesleyan University.
“In fact, I was preparing for it,” he said Tuesday morning as he addressed faculty and staff and explained why he is departing from DWU.
Duffett has accepted the presidency of Eastern University in suburban Philadelphia and will start work there July 1. He will leave Dakota Wesleyan next year after 13 years, however, not one.
“I’m delighted, and have been delighted to have been your president for the past 12½ years,” he said. “My cup is way overflowing. I happen to believe the best days of Dakota Wesleyan University are ahead.
“I may have led the band, but I felt that you played the music. I’ve always believed in us.”
Duffett credited “the plurality of leadership” for what was accomplished during his tenure. He said he was surrounded by a talented, dedicated team that helped him survive and grow as a president.
During his speech, Duffett explained why he was apprehensive about his future back in the spring of 2001.
DWU had been pummeled by a tornado-like event known as a microburst, which ripped the roofs off two buildings and left debris across the campus. Meanwhile, Duffett had become the front man in a dispute between private colleges and universities in South Dakota and then-Gov. Bill Janklow over scholarships.
In the end, both problems worked out for the best. The DWU community and Mitchell teamed up to clean up the campus, and they did such an excellent job that Duffett said he was worried an insurance investigator wouldn’t believe how much damage had occurred.
The battle with Janklow, a four-term governor who enjoyed scrapes and arguments, was quite another thing.
Private schools believed their students should be eligible for state scholarships, which were then called Regents Scholarships and are now known as Opportunity Scholarships.
“We beat him,” Duffett said of his public debate with Janklow, who died in January.
“We had the arguments and he didn’t. It was an honest debate of public process.”
Janklow felt providing those dollars to students violated the constitutional prohibition between blending church and state, but Duffett argued that it was simply a matter of fairness for all students. Although Janklow vetoed the bill after it passed the Legislature, his successor, Gov. Mike Rounds, signed it into law.
“Credit Mike Rounds,” Duffett said. “But we won, didn’t we?”
But he said despite warnings that angering the often-fiery Janklow was a very bad idea, the two men worked together in the future, and Janklow even agreed to attend a DWU fundraiser.
Duffett brought a lot of people into the DWU tent to collect money for the school. That will be a major part of his legacy, he said during a one-hour chat with The Daily Republic after his brief announcement to staff at the Sherman Center.
When he was hired, Duffett said he set five goals: increase enrollment, enhance academic quality, focus on a “student-centered experience,” help people “better live out the Christian identity we claim,” and “raise a heck of a lot of money.”
When he was offered the job in the spring of 2000, he was told DWU was about to launch a $40 million campaign to build a library dedicated to former Sen. George McGovern, a DWU graduate and former professor, and the school planned to erect other facilities on the small campus in Mitchell.
His predecessor, Jack Ewing, had made a deal with McGovern to team up with his alma mater to raise money for the capital campaign.
“I inherited the campaign and the McGovern Library,” Duffett said.
During his time here, he oversaw tremendous changes to the campus.
The nursing department was renovated, as were the Allen Hall and Dayton Hall dormitories and the Wagner Chapel. The McGovern Library, the Sherman Center and Jackson Plaza were built, and the Glenda K. Corrigan Center for Health Sciences is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013.
The Kelley Center for Entrepreneurship, the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service, and the Center for Talent Development became realities as well.
“This has been an unbelievable success story,” he said. “And that has to do with not just me, but all the people here.”
Duffett said nine major projects were undertaken during his presidency, and seven were done without debt. He said he is most proud of the McGovern Library. “Who gets a chance to build an entire library? Not just an addition, but the whole thing?” Duffett said. “Not at Yale. Not at Harvard. Not at Princeton.”
He said McGovern worked hard, and traveled with him to meet with potential donors.
“He got engaged, he opened doors,” Duffett said. “Everyone wanted to meet George McGovern. And by golly, we got it done.
“I’m proud of some of the things we’ve done in history, in science,” he said.
“This is a wonderful place to get an education. Just across the board.”
DWU’s ‘greater future’
Duffett said he will leave DWU in a strong position. He said the staff and faculty are on track to get there.
“We still have a ways to travel,” Duffett said. “We’re not there yet.”
He said he and his wife, Connie, are saddened they will not remain at DWU and witness the “greater future” that the university will see.
But Duffett said they are eager to return to the East Coast, and to a school with deep roots in the Baptist Church.
He is an ordained Baptist minister.
But while there are differences, both are private schools with deep religious backgrounds, and a desire to remain focused on high academic achievement.
“Really, Eastern is a lot like Dakota Wesleyan,” he said.
His wife has worked part-time for DWU and may land a development job at Eastern.
Duffett said she is naturally skilled in that area and has talents as an administrator.
His abilities, he said, are leading and inspiring people, selecting talented folks to surround himself with, and raising money. That means a lot of travel, and he will continue to do that in his new role at Eastern.
“I will need to raise a lot of money for them, too,” Duffett said.
Brad Pratt, the chairman of the DWU Board of Trustees and a 1979 graduate, congratulated Duffett on the new job during a very short address to staffers.
Later, Pratt said Duffett’s talents left an enduring mark on the campus.
“His legacy, in simple terms, is taking a journey through the growth of the university, through academics and the facilities,” he said. “His fingerprints are all over those two.”
Pratt said he knew Duffett was strongly considering the Eastern presidency, and he received a phone call Thursday from DWU’s president to tell him that contract negotiations had ended, and he had agreed to take the post at Eastern, signing a three-year contract.
On Friday, Duffett drove to North Mankato, Minn., to formally hand over his letter of resignation, and the two men chatted for quite some time.
Duffett said Pratt illustrates the possibilities of people with a degree in the liberal arts. He earned a degree in music, but has forged a very successful career in fiscal management.
“He’s a great friend, and has been a great board member,” he said.
Duffett said the 30 people who sit on the DWU board are asked to work for nothing, donate money, and give of their time and expertise. They do get something, he said: They are creating a future for a school they care about.
DWU alumni often rise to the top in their chosen fields, Duffett said, and he has counted on their support to raise money and change the face of the campus.
Duffett will be a tough act to follow, Pratt said. But he hopes to have a new president selected by this spring so he can work with Duffett, who said he would welcome the chance to meet with and assist the new DWU leader.
“This is the very beginning stages,” Pratt said. “There are a lot more questions than answers.”
He said the first step is to form a selection committee. It will include staff members and one student, he said.
“How long this process will take, we don’t know,” Pratt said. “I think the board is engaged to keep this moving.”
If a president isn’t hired by the time Duffett leaves, hiring an interim president is a possibility, he said. But the men noted that Duffett was hired and took the post in a timeframe almost identical to this one.
Duffett has worked across the country during his career, including stops in Minneapolis and Chicago. South Dakota was a place he knew very little about when he arrived here.
“It’s very different. But I have enjoyed every place I have been. I don’t know what that says about me,” Duffett said. “Variety is a good thing.”
He said he will return to Eastern every few weeks for meetings and to prepare for the transition. Duffett said after the ease of driving through Mitchell and sparsely populated South Dakota, he will have to get used to the traffic congestion in the Philadelphia area.
But Duffett has a background in the area. He was born and raised a few miles from the Pennsylvania state line.
“I grew up in Ohio as close to Pennsylvania as you can be without being in Pennsylvania,” Duffett said.
His daughter is a sophomore at a Pennsylvania college. She attended classes at DWU as a high school senior, but said she didn’t want to attend the school while her father was president. His son is a student at a Florida college.
Duffett said he will return to South Dakota, “especially during the pheasant season.” He said while he had no ties to the state when he came here in 2000, he developed a deep love for it.
Duffett said while he looks forward to this next chapter in his life and career, he will always have a soft spot in his heart for DWU.
“There’s a lot of blue and white I have in me,” he said. “I care about this place.”