Harris Pastides spends his last day at University of South Carolina

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides talks about his tenure, his successor and plans for retirement during an interview on July 31, his final day in office. Andy Shain/The Post and Courier 

COLUMBIA — Harris Pastides, an academic over the past four decades, knows there's one more lesson he needs to master: the art of slowing down.

"Fundamentally, I want to rewire my brain to be better at focusing on one thing at a time for like an hour," the University of South Carolina president said on his last day in office after 21 years on campus, including the past 11 as its leader.

"I’m good at juggling. So I want to rewire a little bit to be a little more thoughtful. I think that’ll lead to good health or better health, longevity maybe, better sleeping habits." 

Pastides will greet new university President Bob Caslen on Thursday morning and turn over control of South Carolina's largest college with its eight campuses and 51,000 students to the former West Point superintendent. He expects to split time between Columbia, where he continue to work with USC, and his home in Folly Beach.

Pastides, 65, spoke Wednesday with The Post and Courier about the turbulent president search, the school's future and his role in retirement:

You’ve been here 21 years. Have you ever seen the campus in such turmoil as it has been in the past three months during the presidential search?

“There’s been a lot of upset, there’s been a lot of voices heard. I’m looking forward, I keep my fingers crossed and say my prayers for a return to normalcy with President Caslen ... Of course, we had one student protest a while back relative to as an outgrowth of racial issues that were happening and that was certainly a period of turmoil, but a different focus ... This was unique in every way.”

Could the presidential search process have been better? Should there have been a woman among the finalists?

“I wasn’t inside of it, but I do believe the early parts of it were very good. People complain about who the finalists were, but I don’t have any hands-on experience to know about the performance of the agent, for example ... It certainly should’ve been a priority to have one or more female candidates, yes, that’s true in any search for a presidency."

You’re credited with developing a strong, close relationship with students. How did you accomplish that?

Pastides said he never said "no" to selfies, high-fives or appointment requests. Any student who wanted at least a half-hour of Pastides’ time would get it: "You can lead through trust when you touch enough people and they kind of look inside you and believe they can trust you, too.” Pastides added that Caslen has the skills to become close with students: "He’ll have his own style, not going to be exactly like me, but he’ll find his own way to reach out and be very personal with our student body.”

In your opinion, is having a doctorate degree and a record of research work (which Caslen lacks) a requirement to be an effective university president?

“I don’t think it’s a requirement, but I do believe President Caslen will need to demonstrate to the faculty, mainly, that he understands that we’re a research university and what it takes to aspire to even greater accomplishments. It’ll be up to the faculty to believe him or not, but he is certainly going to have to do that.”

In August, you said this about the skills you thought your successor should have: "A person who will preserve the core strength of the university, but be willing to understand that you can’t do it all ... I would love to have that entrepreneurial, let-me-hit-the-restart-button-here attitude and see where the university can really excel with its mission, but also find new revenue sources." Do you think Caslen demonstrates what you were talking about?

“I could easily say, ‘Yes, I do,’ because I think he probably does, but I think he’ll have to demonstrate all that. I do think he’s got the right stuff though. At Central Florida he was a little bit of a fix-it man. He was hired to come in after a period of turmoil and look at the structure of how things work and try to rebuild trust and finances. So I think he is that fellow, but it’s not easy."

What do you think this campus will look like in five years?

Pastides said he expects completion or near completion of a 3,000-bed student housing project, a new medical school campus and renovation of the Carolina Coliseum to become a student union. Also, Caslen will remake USC’s administration with openings for provost, chief financial officer, fundraising vice president and communications chief. “He’s got to be committed to inclusiveness and diversity and he’s got to choose wisely. These people are probably going to out-last him. If he chooses wisely all of those key hires, they’re going to be as influential as either me or him.”

What is your role at USC going to be moving forward?

“A little of it is yet to be defined. ‘President Emeritus.’ Emeritus is a fancy word. I tell people it means ‘formerly important.’ And let me tell you what my first job is: stay far in the background. Don’t volunteer a lot of advice to President Caslen. Be there for him, but if the phone rings it’s he calling me, not me calling him ... Beyond that, I would like to continue to help students and faculty, but probably at the individual level, at the level of a mentor or adviser.”

USC has taken steps to address diversity on campus, but what more could the university do?

“You’ve got to start with who’s eligible to go to college, and then try to emulate or mimic that particular number. I’m really proud, and I know I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but this is going to be a bumper crop class for African-Americans in the freshman class. We will have doubled the number of African-Americans in the freshman class over the last few years. Why? Because we work better at it. I take responsibility. Were we doing enough in the earlier part of my presidency? Maybe not, but we are now.”

Pastides also stressed the importance of showing first-generation college students what a day in the life of a student would look like, and funding scholarships for those who are struggling.​

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In your 11 years, how have you noticed the culture change among students, and how do you think student culture can change over the next decade?

“In 2008, they were more obsequious, subservient — ‘You’re the professor. I didn’t get this right. I’m so sorry, I’ll do better next time.’ Now, there’s a lot of challenging. Also, the social demeanor of the professor, the language, the body language, the dress … Students are much more expecting their faculty to be sensitive to their feelings, to their vulnerabilities, and not all faculty are. They’re just not. Some faculty say, ‘Look you’re in my classroom, we’re learning plant morphology today. I don’t really care about what’s going on out there.’ But the students do a great deal. So even there you have the potential for more conflict.”

Are you leaving with any regrets?

“Regrets … I will tell you that the most difficult days of the presidency were when violence or injury occurred to a few of our students. So, regrets? Well no, but I have many times thought, ‘What could I have done?’ The two Five Points instances, for example.”

An undergraduate student was paralyzed after a shooting in Five Points in 2014. In March, another student was kidnapped from the area and killed.

“I don’t blame myself that they happened, but I do question what more can be done to improve the safety. Believe me, I’m not talking about closing it down … but I do believe that through what the university can do, what students themselves can do, and then what the city can do and the neighbors can do, we’ve got to continue to improve the safety and the student experience down there. I do worry about that. We need to do more.”

Is there something, anything, you accomplished over your time here that you thought would never happen while on the job?

“There is stereotyping of South Carolina as ‘can’t be good enough,’ and because there is always some subjectivity in these ratings, South Carolina usually underachieves. But to have been ranked as the very top public honors college in the country was something that I had to say, ‘Let me wake up here.’ That was one.”

Pastides was also surprised over the years by USC’s recognition for inclusion and diversity by Insight Into Diversity magazine and by a big improvement in the African-American graduation rate.

“I could keep going. Two College World Series championships, women’s basketball … They were not on my top 10 list. My top 10 list was like, don’t furlough people if possible, don’t wholesale close programs, don’t close colleges, don’t fire people. That’s what I was hoping to do, and then slowly we started gathering momentum and steam, and all these good things happened as well.”

What are your plans for retirement in Folly Beach?​

"The first thing I’m going to do is start dropping many of the balls that I juggle on a daily basis that create consternation, that create anxiety, that create inattentiveness, and I’m going to be left with the balls that I really want to juggle. One of them says 'family and friends,' one of them says 'professional engagement,' one of them says 'community service.'

"But fundamentally, I want to rewire my brain to be better at focusing on one thing at a time for like an hour. Could you read for an hour? As a young professor I used to lock myself in my office for four hours on a Sunday to get a paper out. I’m not good at that anymore … It’s not totally blank, but it’s a half-blank slate. That’s what I’m looking forward to."

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