As June approaches, the USD community prepares to say goodbye to the G.O.A.T. and welcome a new university president.
University President James Abbott announced his retirement Sept. 27. He’s served as USD’s president for 21 years.
Abbott said some of his most memorable moments include the Women’s National Invitational Tournament win in the DakotaDome in 2016 and the student service on campus after 9/11.
Commencement is another personal favorite of Abbott’s. He noted in his last state of the university address that he’s issued 35,148 degrees in 20 years at the job.
“Every single year, every single commencement is a memorable day because it doesn’t make any difference on that day whether you’re first or you’re last, the fact is you are leaving here with a credential that you can use to be whatever you want to be,” he said.
Abbott’s connection to students is evident in the conversations he has with tour groups to the times he lets students play with his dog, McGovern. He’s been interacting with students even more since moving into Coyote Village in February.
Abbott said students need to be at the center of every decision made at the university.
“If you concentrate on the students and what is best for the students, everything will be okay,” he said. “Now that’s not always what the students think is best for the students. Sometimes we have to make decisions that we think are best.”
After retirement Abbott plans on vacationing for the first six months.
“We’ll see, I might flunk retirement,” he said. “I haven’t really thought about it that much, but I’m going to spend some time on the beach this summer, maybe a couple months, and then I’m going to go to Europe for a while. I don’t want to be here in winter anymore if I don’t have to be.”
Leading by example
Scott Pohlson, vice president of enrollment, marketing and university relations, started working for Abbott in 2009. He said he met him for the first time after he’d been on the job for a week.
“My wife and I were taking pictures at one of the University of South Dakota signs on one of the four corners,” he said. “He was walking his dogs and he stopped… and he was just genuine and nice.”
Pohlson said he’s loved working for Abbott.
“He’s just a really good person,” he said. “It’s weird that he’s your boss, because he doesn’t act like your boss. He acts like an individual that wants to make sure you are successful, but at the same time he kind of pushes your buttons in ways you don’t really get frustrated with him, you just kind of see the light after a while. He just has a real honest tack to him that it’s impressive.”
Lamont Sellers, associate vice president for diversity, said Abbott has done great things for inclusive excellence at USD.
“He has been nothing but a green light,” Sellers said. “He is one of those leaders that says, ‘I hired you for your expertise – you go and do what you do.’”
With the freedom Sellers said Abbott has given him, he forgets how things are done at other universities.
“I just left a conference this past week and I was sitting with some colleges from some pretty prestigious institutions across the country, I’m talking about elite institutions, and I’m listening to their experiences with their leadership and I’m like, ‘I have nothing to complain about,'” he said.
Sellers and Pohlson both said one of Abbott’s best qualities is the faith he has in his employees.
“He’s not a micro-manager, you try to hire good people and then give them the support to be successful,” Pohlson said. “He lets me takes risks and he also holds me accountable for those risks.”
Teagan McNary, former SGA president and a political science and criminal justice double major, said Abbott’s legacy at USD can’t be summed up into one word or even a phrase.
“I think summing up his legacy into one thing is so difficult because he has done so much over the last 21 years,” she said. “I think just the type of leadership that he exemplified, he just really set an example for students. He’s a transformative leader.”
The way Abbott interacts with students and acts on campus stands out to McNary, she said.
“He’s passionate and he cares about people, and I think it’s not very often that your university president knows so many students by name and walks their dog through the MUC and stops to have so many conversations with students or goes to the student tailgate and takes pictures,” McNary said. “He made people proud to be a Coyote.”