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President Abbott plugs new, improved ‘U’ to Mitchell alums

University of South Dakota President Jim Abbott laughs with USD alumnus Mark Buche, left, of Mitchell, before Abbott spoke as the featured guest for the USD Alumni Association’s lunch event Tuesday at Blarney’s Sports Bar and Grill in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic) 2 / 2

University of South Dakota President Jim Abbott urged alumni during a Tuesday luncheon in Mitchell to visit their alma mater and see the results of capital campaigns that are transforming the 321-acre Vermillion campus.

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Abbott told about 20 people at Blarney’s Sports Bar and Grill that the USD campus looks great, its programs are being copied nationally and enrollment is steadily up.

“I’m just visiting alums in several South Dakota cities over the next couple of days and visiting with some of our supporters and friends,” he said prior to the meeting. “It gives me a chance to listen to them and reconnect and hear their concerns.”

Abbott, 65, who has been USD president for 17 years, said he planned to visit Pierre later Tuesday and Huron today before heading back to Vermillion.

He told the group that the USD campus was in need of upgrades when he arrived in 1997, and he was not OK with an “it’s all right with us” campus culture that resisted change.

“I really felt a campus should look like a campus ought to look,” he said.

The university has since been revamped and rejuvenated, he said. The original campus quad has expanded and the expanded Muenster University Center will open in January.

Abbott said USD is working on a $250 million fundraising campaign that includes plans for a new basketball arena and an outdoor track and soccer complex.

The school opened a medicine and science building in 2008, a Coyote Village student apartment complex in 2010, and a renovated auditorium and wellness center in 2011.

The school continues to offer fully accredited undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. degrees.

“We’re all things to all people,” Abbott said. “We don’t have ag and we don’t have engineering, but we do have virtually everything else.”

Abbott said USD’s health sciences major is his school’s fastest growing, along with kinesiology and sports science.

He said the medical school’s Yankton Ambulatory Program, in which a student follows patients for a year, has been copied by other medical schools including Harvard.

“The point is that even though we’re a relatively small public university, we can do great things,” he said.

Freshman enrollment hovered at the 1,000 mark for years but increased to 1,250 in 2009. Abbott said USD hopes to increase that number to 1,500 freshmen and to maintain an undergrad enrollment of 6,000 to 7,000 students to make full use of college facilities, and “to maintain a vibrant campus.”

Abbott admitted USD’s move up from Division II to Division I athletics has been “painful.”

“I hated last year,” he admitted. “It nearly did me in.”

He joked that he walked his dog for miles to deal with the stress of losing, including a 1-10 football season. He said it will take USD time to build and compete consistently at the higher level. The football team has shown improvement this year and is currently 4-5. Meanwhile, Abbott champions the liberal arts experience.

“We want well-rounded students, and if they don’t come to us that way, we hope to make them well rounded.” It’s ironic, he said, “that the Bill Gateses of the world and the various organizations across the country who are pushing education are more concerned about learning skills at the higher education level than they are about thinking critically.” “You can learn a skill, but you can’t always learn how to think,” he said.