USD president outlines goals as school approaches 150th anniversary

USD president outlines goals as school approaches 150th anniversary
During Tuesday's annual "State of the University" address, President Jim Abbott didn't tell an overflow crowd of about 500 whether he will recommend that The University of South Dakota move up to NCAA Division I athletics.

Then again, Abbott didn't rule it out, either.

"I won't answer that question until December � and I will answer it in December," he said, referring to the deadline when USD must notify North Central Conference officials of a move to Division I for an exploratory year in 2007-08.

Currently, a USD athletic review task force is studying six areas surrounding a possible move to Division I. The entire task force of about two dozen members plans to meet Oct. 5 at USD, then meet for a final time Nov. 6 to complete its report. Abbott will make the final decision on whether USD will make the leap to Division I.

During his "State of the University" address, Abbott outlined his goals as USD approaches its 150th anniversary in 2012. During the question-and-answer session, a faculty member asked whether those goals would be possible if USD makes the move to the major-college ranks in sports.

"Can we do this (strategic plan) on Division I athletics?" the professor asked.

USD must base the decision on what is best for its long-term interests, Abbott responded.

"This decision is not a question of athletics only. It's a question of positioning our university," he said. "It's a 30-year decision. It's not only whether it's a good decision for today and the next day. It's what is good for us in 30 years."

During his travels around the state, Abbott said he hears two sets of comments. On the one hand, he receives questions on why other schools are moving to Division I while USD has decided in the past to remain NCAA Division II. On the other hand, he hears from people who say USD, as a charter member of the North Central Conference, needs to remain with the NCC because "that's where we need to be."

In recent years, the former 10-team NCC has lost Northern Colorado, North Dakota State and South Dakota State to Division I and Morningside College to the NAIA, Abbott said. Minnesota-Duluth joined the NCC during that time.

North Dakota recently announced its move to Division I, dropping the NCC to the minimum six teams needed to receive automatic post-season berths. Both USD and Augustana College are considering whether to remain with the NCC.

"We are still a great university, and we still have great teams," Abbott said. "USD did not leave the NCC � the NCC got smaller."

While Minnesota State-Mankato, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State would consider a merger with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC), Nebraska-Omaha recently indicated "they have absolutely no interest" in the NSIC, Abbott said.

USD must weigh both the short- and long-term scenarios, Abbott said. "We have to think about the problems we have and make the decision, then go forth," he said.

In his address, Abbott outlined a number of aggressive goals focusing on academic excellence. He called for raising faculty salaries, doubling research funding to $60 million by 2012 and continuing an emphasis on writing and math programs to build student skills in those areas.

Abbott also wants to increase the number of first-year law school seats to 65, provide more programs in Sioux Falls, offer more scholarships and improve facilities.

Larger enrollment and the retention of more students must remain high priorities, Abbott said. He called for raising enrollment � which stood last year at about 8,000 � to a new level of 10,000 to 11,000 students. USD needs to recruit more of the state's top students and more minorities, and the school must keep more of the students it recruits, Abbott said.

"Sixty percent of South Dakota students who attend college out of state have ACT scores of 24 and above. That means we aren't the first choice of those students. We need 1,200 freshmen, and I would like half of them to have ACT scores of 24 or greater," he said. "We also need to retain better. Seventy percent retention from freshmen to sophomores isn't good enough � our goal should be 78 percent. And having a graduation rate of 51 percent within six years isn't good enough. We need to reach 60 percent."

In terms of fund raising, USD officials expect to raise $130 million by the Dec. 31 conclusion of Campaign South Dakota, Abbott said. "Our goal was $60 million, and our consultant said we would never raise $30 million," he said.

In addition, the USD endowment has grown from $31 million in 1996 to $118 million today, Abbott said. Those dollars will become even more important in coming years, he said.

That's particularly true for building needs, such as handicapped accessibility, Abbott said. The Legislature provided $1.6 million in one year for all USD facilities, while elevators at the DakotaDome and Slagle Hall alone cost a respective $285,000 and $1 million, he said.

The Legislature will not likely give large increases for higher education at the same time it faces a lawsuit over K-12 school funding, Abbott said. He noted a number of K-12 districts have already opted out of the state property-tax freeze.

"I don't see any appetite in the state at the legislative level to raise taxes for anything that's not absolutely necessary," he said. "We have removed the personal property tax and the inheritance tax. You can't have a state that is dedicated to removing taxes and expect more money for schools."

Abbott disputed an audience member's opinion that no one is trying to raise more funds for higher education in Pierre. "It's not true to say they aren't trying. But people aren't voting for people who look to raise taxes," Abbott said.

In the end, USD must make the most of its resources, Abbott said. "With every decision, we need to ask, is this what the best small public university in the nation would do?"

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