Sheila Gestring reviewed her first months as USD’s president and announced plans for the school’s future in her inaugural State of the University Address at Aalfs Auditorium Thursday afternoon.
Gestring opened by endorsing the importance of liberal arts education, reiterating that USD is “the state’s flagship and only public liberal arts university.”
“The most fundamental principle in education,” Gestring said, “is learning how to learn. The question is not ‘how much money will I make?’, but ‘how can I use my gifts make a positive contribution to my family and my community?’”
Increasing scholarships in the School of Law was a primary need for the University, Gestring said, noting that 13 full scholarships were awarded to law students, last year’s average LSAT score rose to its highest since 2010, and the law school’s class size rose 22 percent this year.
Gestring said the South Dakota Board of Regents’ (SDBOR) top priority is an initiative called Dakota’s Promise, “a needs-based financial aid program that will help 6,000 South Dakotans every year.”
“These are South Dakotans who have earned, academically, the privilege to attend a public university, but do not have the financial means to do so,” Gestring said.
As of now, South Dakota is the only state in the country without a needs-based scholarship program, but Gestring said university presidents have agreed to raise private funds to match each dollar the State is able to contribute.
USD’s 1,427 new undergraduate students is the largest enrollment class in school history. Gestring said this was due in large part to USD’s new reciprocity with Iowa students, whom increased 7.2 percent this year, and Nebraska students, whom increased 25 percent.
In addition, enrollment of domestic students of color rose 13.7 percent this year, Gestring said.
“Once we recruit students,” Gestring said, “we must retain them.”
Gestring said retention rates rose to 77.3 percent for the 2017-18, compared to 72 percent in 2016-2017.
“Part of this success can be attributed to Coyote connections,” she said, “a student retention tool that helps faculty and advisors identify students that may be struggling with the transition to university life.”
Next, Gestring said it’s critical the university offer competitive salaries to faculty and staff, and that SDBOR is requesting $3 million from the state legislature for salaries at public universities. Along with the bonus, Gestring said it will offer 50 percent Wellness Center membership discounts and two free “Day-of” event tickets to faculty beginning January 2019.
Gestring said the university has raised over $270 million in fundraising for the Facilities Master Plan, a source to fund facility improvement, scholarships, research and travel opportunities for faculty and students, and new campus programs.
“It takes each one of us to succeed collectively,” Gestring closed.
“I think she gave a good glimpse of what the university is looking at right now and going forward,” said Student Government Association (SGA) president Josh Sorbe. “I’ve said it since school started and I’ll keep saying it: I think it’s a great time to be a Coyote.”
“I think it was a good first address,” said Marcus Destin, a second-year communications student. “She did very well addressing all the issues as well as past concerns, along with future tasks and solutions.”
Destin said he believes Gestring’s vision for the university is “refreshing”.
“It’s in revamp,” he said. “After twenty-odd years, it’s good to have a new vision and new perspective moving forward.”
Part of that vision includes utilizing the fundraising dollars in the Facilities Master Plan, which Sorbe said will be used in various projects around campus and the town of Vermillion.
“She’s told me that the three priorities right now are (1) the Fine Arts building and an Art Incubator downtown. Second one would be the health sciences building in Julian Hall, and then the third one being the law school,” Sorbe said.
Sorbe said Gestring took full advantage of the 45 minutes she was allotted on the podium.
“There’s a lot going at USD right now, and there’s no way to cover it all,” Sorbe said. “I think she gave a very good overview of what we’re looking at right now.”