The University of South Dakota celebrated the inauguration of its 18th president, Sheila K. Gestring, in Aalfs Auditorium Wednesday afternoon.
In her inaugural address, Gestring spoke of the first students of USD, the Discovery District in Sioux Falls and the importance of Liberal Arts education.
“All of us who have dedicated our lives to education can understand the impact it can have on an individual’s life. That’s why it is so critical we increase access for South Dakotans to take advantage of the life-changing opportunities that we offer,” Gestring said. “That was USD’s mission 157 years ago, when the territorial legislature invested in higher education. That remains our mission today. And with our continued investment, that mission will continue far into the future.”
The ceremony began with performances from the USD Symphonic Band, the National Anthem sung by the Vermillion Children’s Choir, and a welcome from Pastor Steve Miller of Vermillion United Church of Christ.
A slew of figures from the South Dakota congressional community offered congratulatory letters, including from Gov. Kristi Noem, South Dakota Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds, Rep. Dusty Johnson and State Senator Art Rusch.
Sen. Thune chronicled Gestring’s familiarity with the area and its traditions with a description of her upbringing on her family farm west of Vermillion near Springfield.
“Many people at USD have surely noticed the same commitments in you, but they may know less about your deep roots in South Dakota,” Thune’s letter read. “Her farm raised grains from the rich soils of the Missouri River Valley. They had cattle and raised chickens when she was young. They had hogs until their mother objected to the smell.”
“I know President Gestring will be an amazing and historic leader for the University of South Dakota and I look forward to working with her in the years to come,” Thune’s letter finished.
Presidents from surrounding universities also gave congratulatory speeches, including Thomas Shortbull of Oglala Lakota College, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of Augustana University and Jose-Marie Griffiths of Dakota State University.
Griffiths applauded Gestring’s external vision and internal knowledge of a university’s function using an allusion to the perspectives of Earth, viewed both far away from a Satellite and up close from its core.
“Sheila has, in essence, spent time looking over USD and South Dakota in the same way that the astronauts on the International Space Station look down on Earth each day,” Griffiths said. “Sheila has, through her previous work as the university’s CFO, not only gained the outer space perspective, she’s also learned the inside-out perspective.”
Jim Abbott, President Emeritus, thanked the USD community for the “warm welcome back.”
“It’s good to be home,” he said. “To paraphrase General MacArthur, old presidents never die, they just lose their parking spots.”
“I’ve often said commencement is my favorite day of the year, and though it’s not graduation day, we are here to celebrate commencement, a new beginning,” Abbott said.
After the ceremony, Abbott said he caught a few flashbacks of his inauguration ceremony in 1997, almost 21 years ago. However, he said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the past.
“I just am so happy for Sheila and I think she’ll do a great job for the university,” he said.
Nate Welch, President and CEO of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Corporation, said the City of Vermillion will soon offer the new President a gift that is only one in 365.
“(Gestring’s) enthusiasm has ever translated into a proclamation forthcoming from our Mayor and City Council that today is officially and forever shall be ‘Sheila K. Gestring Day’ in Vermillion.”
Following the ceremony, Welch said Gestring’s inauguration offered a moment to remember the prominence of the presidential position.
“Sheila is so approachable and so down-to-Earth that we sometimes forget how great of a leader she is in the position she holds,” he said. “Taking a moment to have that kind of a ceremony reminds us of the fact that she’s just the 18th person to hold that position in a university that has been here for so long.”
Welch said Inauguration Day also gave members from all walks of the USD community a chance to “come and have a great day in Vermillion.”
“One thing it does is remind people of the energy and what Vermillion really has to offer, and how Vermillion has changed,” he said. “Even sitting at lunch today, it was fun to talk to a number of people… someone said ‘I’ve been here for 10 years, and this is not the same town that it used to be.’ Another person we were sitting with, she’s been here since 1980, and she said ‘what this place is, these last five years, has been transformational.’ Another person had been here for 50 years, and she said ‘what we are becoming is so exciting because I’ve seen potential in this town for so long.”