COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina has gone through a billion-dollar building boom, expanded enrollment by the size of The Citadel and Francis Marion University combined, and won national titles in baseball and women's basketball in a decade under President Harris Pastides.
The Yale-educated New Yorker won't say when he's retiring, but he is getting close to the end of his time leading the Palmetto State's flagship college with 52,000 students at eight campuses. College presidents last 6½ years on average these days.
Pastides, 64, says he has the energy for days that start with meetings before breakfast and end with evening receptions.
Pastides spoke from his office on USC's historic Horseshoe last week about what he wants to accomplish before leaving, how the school is handling more students and higher tuition, and what he would change about students if he could.
Ten years ago, did you ever think you would last this long?
"I thought that with the pending recession ... with the almost daily challenges of so many things, I really thought that five years would be a successful accomplishment."
He credited "a solid marriage," exercise, diet ("imperfect though it may be") and community support for his longevity.
What legacy do you think you have left in your first 10 years?
Pastides cited the school's expansion of the summer semester to help get students to graduate as fast as possible and the creation of an online college. He also noted his relationship with students, something that has surprised him since he leads such a large campus.
"When you touch one (student), they will tell a friend or roommate and then all of a sudden, 'Really you can go to see him?' or 'He’ll come to our group event?' ... It is a strategy to be close and to have a legacy as president of the students."
What do you want to accomplish in the time you have left?
Pastides wants to see progress on refurbishing the Carolina Coliseum into a hub for students with meeting space, dining and classrooms and labs for the business and engineering schools. Pastides also wants to get started with a $460 million makeover of the south side of campus that will replace old dorms and move the medical school to a proposed $200 million health sciences campus in the Bull Street development. The projects "provide an anchor for me to want to be able to continue."
During your tenure, USC’s enrollment in Columbia has added nearly 8,000 students. How has that changed the experience on campus?
"There’s no doubt when I started 10 years ago I rarely crossed Assembly Street other than for a basketball game. And now, there’s almost as much activity on the west side of Assembly as much as there is on the east side of Assembly."
He questions if the campus population has become too dense, noting the congestion of pedestrians and cars during peak periods. "You wonder if you’re a student who cherishes the quiet, who cherishes the intimate, whether this can be that university for you. You can find quiet places on campus. But I want to make sure we don't become or haven't become almost too urban for some people."
More enrollment growth will come as major projects are finished, he added, but not at the pace of the past decade.
Tuition has risen by 43 percent since 2008. Could USC have held down some of those increases?
Not without sacrificing the quality of the school, Pastides said. "I would say we're about as far as we can go. And that’s not a pledge to say 'Never again.' But we are so committed to either not raising tuition or raising it at the most minimal level possible. We believe we have to work with state government, this year and not down the road, to constrain tuition."
Pastides said the school will back legislation that calls for additional money for public colleges when tax revenues rise and setting aside cash for university building maintenance. The bill also would create another pool of cash to pay for needs-based scholarships and the costs of educating South Carolinians that could trigger tuition freezes when lawmakers fill up the fund. Pastides said the money would come from additional sale tax collections from online merchants.
"The other thing to remember, although I am not happy about South Carolinians paying more and borrowing more, is that customers have always voted with their feet and their pocketbooks. We’re not hurting for applicants in the state or outside the state. We had around 30,000 applicants."
If you could make any change that is not under your immediate control to improve the college experience, what would it be?
"I would change the societal impression that college is a time to come and drink with reckless abandon. The alcohol consumption patterns of young people in the country are a product of the way America deals with alcohol. ... It's extremely unhealthy. It’s a binge type thing."
USC is working to become a "public Ivy," like the University of North Carolina. What would that reputation mean for the state but could that leave some South Carolinians behind?
"I believe we are one of those places, but you could always do better. I do believe companies, especially knowledge-based companies, thinking about where to relocate that is an important factor. They know they can get the talent that they are looking for, not only the graduates but also the professors. Beyond that, I think it’s a point of pride of a state that has not been overtly known as a mecca of education."
Pastides said USC does not turn away South Carolinians for out-of-state students and the percentage of in-state students will rise this fall. "I want to be a beacon for the rest of the world but not at the expense of diminishing our commitment to serve the state."
You first arrived in South Carolina 20 years ago as dean of USC's public health school. How has the state changed?
Friends from the Northeast who teased Pastides about moving to the South (they gave him bug spray and mini Confederate flags) now talk about retiring in South Carolina.
"We are still lacking some things. We surpass if you want to be a skilled worker — assemble, manufacture, make things — but if you want to think things through and if you’re working on the next Apple or the next Google, we don’t really have a density of those knowledge economy, digital employers." South Carolina does not have as many "coffee-drinking, T-shirt wearing, music-listening people ... who will work and compete with China and change the world. That’s what I hope will be tomorrow South Carolina, it's not quite there today."
What skills should your successor 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 was going to say, avow that there will be winners and losers, but that makes people very nervous, the faculty in particular. I don't mean the wholesale cutting of colleges but looking where the need is in the state and in society. ... I would love to have that entrepreneurial, 'Let me hit the restart button here' (attitude) and see where this university can really both excel in its mission but also find the revenue sources."