2023 State of the University Address
September 19, 2023
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. It is a pleasure to be here among so many people who are excited about the future of the University of South Carolina and who are invested in its success – students, faculty and staff, our Trustees, community members, civic leaders and friends. I much appreciate you joining us here today. Thank you for your dedication, your commitment, your hard work, and your generous support. But most importantly, thank you for your faith in our mission.
Fourteen years ago, when I became the provost of USC, Charles Bierbauer, a very successful journalist with CNN, was at that time the dean of our College of Mass Communications and Information Studies. He insisted that I should always start my remarks with the headline. So, the headline for today is: The University of South Carolina is in great shape and is building strong momentum.
And I’m here to tell you the story which supports the headline.
A little more than one year ago, this university welcomed me as its 30th president. One of the first questions I faced, even before I started in my position, was: When are we going to fill all the empty leadership positions at the vice president and the dean levels?
This was a very important task, because these leaders, on a daily basis, contribute to and execute the vision that allows us to meet our goals. Hiring them was a top priority, and I’m very pleased with the results. In less than a year, we brought in four members of the Executive Cabinet and six new deans through national searches. We have a good mix of individuals who know USC and those who are coming here for the first time. But, most importantly, we have a group that brings experience, innovation and stability to their divisions and colleges. We have a great team!
First, in our Executive Cabinet:
We welcomed a new provost, Dr. Donna Arnett;
A new Vice President for Development, Michelle Dodenhoff;
A new Vice President for Student Affairs and Academic Support, Rex Tolliver;
And we elevated Dr. Stacy Fritz from her interim role to be my Chief of Staff.
And in the academic units, we also welcomed:
In the College of Education, Dean Tommy Hodges;
In the University Libraries, Dean David Banush;
In the College of Social Work, Dean Teri Browne;
In the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management, Dean Michael Sagas;
In the Darla Moore School of Business, Dean Rohit Verma;
And in the Graduate School, Dean Ann Vail.
Attracting or retaining these leaders to USC speaks to the excellence our national reputation, and I am looking forward to working with them and learning from them.
The first day in the Office of the President, on July 1 of last year, I met with the student government leadership, and I asked them to imagine the future of USC. Imagine a university that is unparalleled in delivering an outstanding student experience for the entirety of its students’ time here. Imagine a university that innovates in how it delivers the knowledge and experiences that make their studies more meaningful. And, imagine the ways that this university can prepare them for a successful career.
The response from our students greatly exceeded my hopes. We held a summit with our undergraduates last September, and they spoke openly and in detail about their concerns and their ideas. Their contributions sparked improvements in many different areas that I will present today.
But most importantly, the imagination of our undergraduate students was contagious. Our graduate students followed with their own Imagine Carolina sessions, and our faculty and staff members did the same. This spark ignited more enthusiasm and innovative ideas throughout our university community. And it also made it very clear that our academic community wants us to realize our full potential and maximize our impact.
If you have been in the audience at one of my speaking engagements during the past year, you may have heard me sharing – and frequently paraphrasing – a favorite quote from Andrew Carnegie, the American businessman who made his fortune in the steel industry and went on to become a leading philanthropist. Carnegie said, “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”
I have shared this quote repeatedly, because I want to emphasize our results. We may have great plans for the future, but it is what we have done during the past year that reflects our progress and addresses our needs right now.
This fall, we welcomed the largest freshman class ever in the history of USC. More than 7,300 new freshmen joined our USC family, and we are excited to watch them learn and thrive here. We knew growth was coming, because we had received more than 47,000 applications for admission. Both numbers are clear evidence of the strength of our reputation across the country, as more and more students and their families recognize us as a destination of choice. But most importantly, South Carolina students and their families have great confidence in our state’s flagship university and its ability to deliver a world-class education. This is the only way to interpret the significant increase of in-state students who applied to and enrolled at USC this fall. I want to thank Scott Verzyl, Vice President for Enrollment Management, and his team for the amazing work they do every year.
Growth brings challenges, but we were ready. We added 137 new faculty members. We increased the number of instructors for University 101 – the course that helps new students transition to college life – and we are offering 327 sections this fall, serving 20 students per section. We ensured that we have capacity in our classrooms and enough class sections to meet the needs of our freshmen. And we opened the doors to our new Campus Village, with more beds and more seats for dining.
When we asked our students for their ideas during Imagine Carolina last September, the top priorities they identified were academic advising, mental health and wellness resources, Wi-Fi connectivity on campus, and, my favorite, parking! We have made significant progress in these areas.
This fall, the Office of the Provost added 26 new advisors to our University Advising Center – a 60% increase. These new hires will improve access and quality in the advising we provide to students. Furthermore, the Provost’s office is rolling out a new four-year advising model to enhance guidance and to engage students in more meaningful and comprehensive discussions – not only about academic planning, but also about career aspirations and experiential learning opportunities. I want to thank Provost Arnett and her office for these changes in advising, and also for the other issues they address day after day and their hard work to introduce important initiatives.
Our mental health services have been restructured to ensure students can access support from counselors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in their moment of need, regardless of their location – even while they are traveling internationally to study abroad. We have also hired more support staff in our counseling center, which has allowed us to expand the availability of same-day appointments, and to assist students requiring immediate, in-person support. Wait times for individual appointments have been reduced by 50%.
We have created new counseling groups that are dedicated to the specific and evolving needs of our students.
We are providing access to meditation and mindfulness resources that help them build coping and resiliency skills.
And we have hired USC’s first basic-needs coordinator, who helps alleviate stress and anxiety by assisting students who are facing challenges with food, housing and other basic needs. I want to thank Rex Tolliver and his Student Affairs and Academic Support division for all the work they do to support our students.
To improve campus technology and Wi-Fi, we committed approximately $10 million to modernize and systematically replace older equipment . By doing so, we will reduce interruptions to teaching and learning time and improve connectivity. We have completed upgrades to the wired and wireless networks in 35 buildings across campus, and we will upgrade at least 50 more in the coming year. We have also modernized 65 classrooms to support diverse teaching modalities and functionality.
Our students are also the inspiration for our efforts to become a more user-friendly university. Student Affairs has created a new Office of Student Advocacy, which is designed to be an easy-to-access, one-stop shop, conveniently located right here in Russell House, and is ready to respond to all student needs. No matter what the question or concern is, students can get help in person at this office, or by phone or email. We want to make it easier for students to navigate our university and minimize the time they spend to resolve their issues. Already, we are making a difference - we have reduced the turnaround time to help resolve students' issues by 60% this fall.
And finally, in parking: We added this year more than 3,000 new parking spaces, in surface lots and garages, for resident and commuting students. This is a 20% increase in student parking spaces on campus within walking distance of classrooms and housing. For safety and convenience, many lots are being served by more buses and extended service hours for campus transportation.
I want to thank our Student Government and our Student Body President, Emmie Thompson, for their leadership. Emmie, I want you and all our students to know that we hear you, we are listening to your concerns, we are committed to making changes that will improve your daily experience at USC, and we will continue to prioritize your needs.
Our student-athletes also had a great year. They have now surpassed a cumulative 3.0 GPA for the past 33 consecutive semesters – this goes back to 2006! They finished the spring semester with one of the Athletics department’s highest GPAs on record – 3.4. At the end of the last academic year, South Carolina ranked second in the SEC with 175 student-athletes earning SEC Academic Honor Roll recognition. USC has been either first or second in the SEC for the last five years.
In competition, our Women’s Basketball team delivered an exciting season all the way to the Final Four! Regardless of the outcome in Dallas, they were the best team in the country. Overall, our Gamecocks in nine different sports finished their seasons in the Top 25 in the country. Our alumni and supporters take notice of these efforts, and they enjoy our sporting events – especially when the Gamecocks win! I want to thank Athletics Director Ray Tanner and his entire team for the wonderful work they do supporting our student-athletes.
From all the work we do, nothing is more important than delivering an education that prepares our students to be our future leaders, professionals and citizens. In today’s global competition for talent, higher education has an important obligation and a crucial role to play. We must provide not only degree programs, but also opportunities for our students to develop critical skills for an evolving 21st-century job market.
Workforce development is a priority for our university, to meet our students' expectations and fulfill our mission to build the future of our state. This year, we launched our Interdisciplinary Certificates program, designed to equip our students, regardless of their majors, with the skills that align with modern workforce needs. The first of these certificates, in Digital Studies, is offered for the first time this fall. Three more – in strategic thinking and communications, project management and leadership, and data analytics and visualization – are ready to launch as soon as we have Faculty Senate and state approval, hopefully as early as January. All of them address workforce skills that have been identified as essential by employers across the country and can be completed without increasing the time to degree completion and without extra tuition.
With a significant investment from state funding, we also launched this summer our new South Carolina Internship Program, which is already a great success. Each student intern in this program benefits from a $3,000 supplement, in addition to the pay they earn from partnering businesses. During the summer, we awarded over $1 million to 335 students. Those students represented 80% of the counties in South Carolina. The participating employers represent high-demand fields in the state, such as manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, energy, health and life sciences, and financial services. By participating, our students gain real workforce experience and career-readiness skills, while their employers have the opportunity to keep top talent in our state. We are now extending this program to students at all our system campuses, and we are anticipating much higher numbers for next summer.
We are also supporting workforce development efforts across the state through our Palmetto College iCarolina Lab Network. The first of these labs opened at USC Union in 2022, and the most recent one opened in Kershaw last March, in affiliation with USC Lancaster. In total, the iCarolina network has served more than 10,000 community visitors at eight Palmetto College sites, providing free access to high-speed internet in areas with limited broadband access and offering Apple certification programs to spur economic opportunities in high-need areas of our state. I want to recognize Palmetto College Chancellor Susan Elkins and the leader of the Office of Economic Development, Bill Kirkland, and their teams for creating this powerful network.
A few weeks ago, we announced a new effort to ensure access to a USC education for all students in our state who excel in high school. Starting next fall, we will admit all students who are graduating in the top 10 percent of their class at South Carolina high schools. No matter where they live and learn during their high school years, South Carolina students who are proving their academic merit in their local schools will know they have a home at Carolina, where they can earn their college degree. We want them here.
We are grateful that our state’s leaders recognize the value of higher education and the role of the state’s flagship university. With their support, we were able to hold tuition steady for our in-state students for a fifth year in a row. And with funding for low-income students from the General Assembly and Governor McMaster, we were able to double the number of South Carolinians who received state need-based aid and to increase the average amount provided by 65%. We are committed to keeping our degree programs affordable for South Carolinians, and especially for those who excel against the odds: first-generation and low-income students.
Funds approved by our state legislature this year will enable us to complete renovations to the Science and Technology Building at the intersection of South Main and Greene Streets. With this funding, we will be adding more technology-enhanced, active-learning classrooms and instructional labs.
Many of you were present last month when we celebrated the grand opening of Campus Village, the largest construction project in our history. This residential community is a showpiece for our campus. It includes four buildings that house 1,800 students, a spacious dining area that can accommodate 650 people for all-you-care-to-eat dining, plus academic support, career services and group meeting spaces. This landmark project was completed on schedule and on budget. This gives me the opportunity to recognize Ed Walton, Executive Vice President for Administration & Chief Financial Officer, the University Architect Derek Gruner, and the entire division, which makes sure that everything is working at our university.
We are also making great strides in health sciences education, an area where we already excel. The general public in South Carolina may not know that USC awards thousands of health science degrees every year, in approximately 50 different areas of study. Within our infrastructure growth, we are boldly advancing our role in health sciences education and research as we aim to keep as many of these talented young professionals as possible working here in South Carolina and improving the quality of health care in our state and beyond.
We are moving steadily forward with plans for the development of our new Health Sciences Campus in the BullStreet District, near our clinical partner PRISMA Health. This visionary $300 million project will be the new home for our School of Medicine in Columbia and will also house multidisciplinary research programs. We are working to complete designs this year and anticipate that the first phase of construction will begin in late 2024 or early 2025.
We are also very excited about our partnership with Lexington Medical Center and the construction of a new clinical education building near the hospital in West Columbia. Construction is in progress for this new 52,000-square-foot building, after we broke ground last year. This facility will include state-of-the-art classroom and simulation environments primarily for our third- and fourth-year nursing students. It will allow us to graduate 400 nurses each year by 2027 – an 80% annual increase – which will help address an estimated need for 6,000 new nurses in our state in the coming years. I want to recognize our dean of Nursing, Jeannette Andrews, and the leadership of the Lexington Medical Center, for all the work they put in creating this great partnership.
USC had a strong year in Research! Our research awards increased by 5%, for a total of $244 million – 60% of these awards were in the health sciences. Some of the largest grants we received were submitted across a range of disciplines. I will highlight four of them:
Professor Edie Goldsmith, from Cell Biology and Anatomy, was funded for her project “South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence.”
Professor Ron Prinz, from Psychology, was funded for the Research Center for Child Well-Being.
Professor Enrico Santi, from Electrical Engineering, was funded for his Phase 3 study of Digital Twins for Resilient Power and Energy Systems.
And Professor James Hebert, from Epidemiology and Biostatistics, was funded for his project on metabolic regulation in obese family members and their potential risk of colorectal cancer.
One of the most exciting developments in research for USC this year was the creation of five new interdisciplinary research institutes. Last spring, through the Office of the Vice President for Research, we made a strategic investment of $10 million in these five institutes. They were selected through a rigorous review process and are led by outstanding researchers. They will bring together multidisciplinary teams, focusing on critical problems affecting South Carolina and beyond. These institutes are:
The Institute for Rural Education and Development, led by Matthew Irvin in the College of Education;
The Institute for Extreme Semiconductor Chips, led by Asif Khan in the College of Engineering and Computing;
The Institute for Infectious Disease Translational Research, led by Melissa Nolan in the Arnold School of Public Health;
The Institute for Cardiovascular Disease Research, led by Clinton Webb in the School of Medicine in Columbia; and
The Institute for Clean Water, led by Tammi Richardson in the College of Arts and Sciences.
We expect that this far-reaching initiative will strengthen our opportunities to compete for major grants and will enhance USC’s national research profile.
A second grant funding program that we reinstated this past year supports the arts, humanities and social sciences. The Excel Funding Program is designed to recognize and invest in faculty scholarship in often-underfunded disciplines. This is a program I initiated in 2009 as Provost, and it was a high priority for me to see USC invest in these fields. We made 42 awards on a very broad range of topics, such as a study of disease and decisions in the American War of Independence, as well as a study of Songs of Protest.
Another exciting new program – and one that will span both research and health care delivery – is our Rural Brain Health Network, which we will launch in the coming months with support from the General Assembly. We will create a hub-and-spoke network that establishes diagnostic clinics in underserved rural areas of the state. We will use advanced neuroimaging equipment and expertise to provide dementia assessment and clinical services to South Carolinians, near their homes. Leading this network will be neurologist Leonardo Bonilha, who joins us from Emory University and who will serve as both the network’s director and the senior associate dean for research at our School of Medicine in Columbia.
This network will be anchored in Columbia by a state-of-the-art Brain Health Center. This hub will advance ongoing research and treatment of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and brain-related conditions. The center will be home to advanced technology, including a rare, powerful, seven-tesla MRI scanner, the first of its kind in our state.
Finally, we have played a pivotal role in creating an advanced energy consortium of more than 35 public and private organizations, led by the SC Department of Commerce. This collaboration is an effort to gain federal designation and funding as a regional technology hub. The focus of this group, which we are calling SC Nexus, is to pioneer research into energy generation, distribution and storage. Our vision is to establish South Carolina as a global leader in the energy industry and to position USC among the forefront of engineers, scientists and innovators working in sustainable energy. For all these efforts in research, I want to recognize Vice President for Research Julius Fridriksson and his very efficient group in our Office of Research.
We are also very proud of the achievements of our student researchers. This year, for the first time since 2004, all four USC undergraduate student nominees for the Goldwater Scholarship were selected as scholars. Earning this prestigious national award is recognition not only of their excellence in STEM research, but also their potential for future research careers. Our four Goldwater Scholars are all students in our Honors College:
Shannon DePratter, a biomedical engineering major;
Neal Hammond, who is double-majoring in biological sciences and neuroscience;
Emma Mason, a McNair Scholar studying biochemistry and molecular biology, and
Amber Pospistle, a Stamps Scholar who has created her own major through the Honors College in computational biology studies.
In addition, in the past year, eight of our current USC graduate students were named National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows, and three others earned honorable mention.
Among our outstanding faculty, the past year has brought awards and recognition from national academies and professional associations, elections to elite leadership positions, and honors from state, regional, and national organizations, attesting to their excellence in research, scholarship and service. Most notable among them are the election of School of Law Dean William Hubbard to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the selection of physics professor Timir Datta as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Other significant recognitions include a statewide honor for Professor Lacy Ford, the scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Southern Studies in our College of Arts and Sciences, who was chosen as a 2023 recipient of the Governor’s Awards in the Humanities; and USC Sumter professor and celebrated poet Ray McManus, who received the 2023 Governor’s Award for the Arts. A children’s book by Dianne Johnson, a USC professor of English language and literature, was named the best book of the year by both Kirkus and School Library Journal, and it won honors from the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. National media stories also featured a unique partnership between our School of Music and Carnegie Hall, called the Lullaby Project, which helps incarcerated mothers write personalized lullabies for their children.
Our supporters and donors have embraced our priorities and taken notice of our programs. It should come as no surprise, then, that the year-end numbers from Development offered very exciting news. We raised approximately $115 million, a 40% increase over the previous year and the best fundraising year since 2017.
The Development team is also taking an innovative approach to creating a pipeline from within the university for future philanthropy – and launching new careers at the same time! Under the leadership of Vice President Michelle Dodenhoff, we started a pioneering program called Develop Carolina. We created the inaugural cohort from our newest graduates – 13 new alumni who were interested in being certified as gift officers for USC. We trained them through a partnership with the School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, and then placed them in fundraising positions across the university. Who could be better to share their passion for the impact of USC than our own young alumni, who are now hard at work raising money for USC? And we will repeat this program next year, as we continue to grow and prepare for a capital campaign.
Ero and I had the pleasure of meeting many of our university’s graduates – and there are approximately 350,000 of them around the globe – as we traveled across the state and the country this past year to events hosted by our Alumni Association: From Rock Hill, Florence, Charleston, and Greenville; to Chicago, Washington, DC, San Diego, Denver, New York, Atlanta, and Charlotte – no matter where we have traveled, we heard the commitment of our alumni to our university. We also heard them celebrating the most popular decision of the past year – the return of our beloved “USC” brand! Sometimes, you just say goodbye to a simple, 2-letter preposition, and you are rewarded with widespread acclaim! Life would be easier if I could find one of these prepositions every year!
Our alumni and community stakeholders are an important part of our success, and we are improving our communications with them. We quadrupled the circulation of the Carolinian, our alumni magazine, so our supporters can keep up with the great things happening at USC. At every place Ero and I went, our alumni reminded us how much proud they are for our top-ranked academic programs, for the impact of our graduates in their communities, and for the university's economic impact on our region and our state. We celebrated many of these proud moments publicly through our “Remarkable We” brand campaign. In public polling last May, the survey results showed a 97% positive impression of USC among our alumni, which is an almost impossible number to maintain, and a 75% positive response in the general population. I want to thank Vice President Larry Thomas and his Communications & Marketing team for driving these efforts, and our Board of Trustees for strongly supporting the campaign to showcase the best of our university.
As we embrace new ways to improve interactions with internal and external communities, we recently announced a reorganization that created an Office of Access, Civil Rights and Community Engagement. This office, led by Vice President Julian Williams and his team, will provide a centralized alignment of our efforts to ensure a welcoming university environment, administer federal civil rights and Title IX requirements, and to extend our work with our community partners.
During the past year, we welcomed opportunities to engage with communities that represent part of USC’s history and to establish their place in our future. Our Center for Civil Rights History and Research announced an important partnership with the National Park Service to tell and preserve the stories of America’s civil rights movement. This new initiative expands on the long-time support of the Park Service, which has also funded renovations to the historic Booker T. Washington high school building.
Last April, we celebrated the naming of a residence hall for Celia Dial Saxon, an African American educator with ties to both the university and the Ward One neighborhood, which was located near the site of this residence hall. We were also proud to partner with Historic Columbia in January to dedicate a new historical marker near the Horseshoe commemorating USC’s first African American trustees, faculty and students during the short period of Reconstruction.
Such events create opportunities to embrace the vast network of lives that have shaped USC and to educate ourselves about the history of our institution.
What an eventful year this has been! It is energizing to talk about our successes and to realize what we have accomplished together.
And while we build our momentum in pursuit of the most pronounced impact we can have, our next year’s highlights are already a work in progress!
Based on your feedback, we are focusing on three Strategic Priorities:
Reimagining the Student Experience and Advancing Post-Graduate Success;
Increasing Research and Scholarship to Drive Community and Economic Impact; and
Transforming Service Delivery and Promoting Operational Excellence.
You will see these priorities reflected in the work that we do going forward.
We will continue to aggressively recruit the best students from our state and across the nation, making USC the destination of choice for all South Carolinians and beyond. We will make clear that we want them here, and that they belong here.
We will place even more emphasis on first-generation and low-income students, because a college degree is the most effective socioeconomic elevator for these students and their families. Our plan to admit the top 10% of high school graduates will increase access for many of these students. But we recognize that extending access without addressing affordability is, in some cases, meaningless, and we will address affordability this year! We will also provide more resources and services to meet the needs of these students.
As you know, USC’s first-year student experience is the best in the country and a model for thousands of universities in the US and around the world. We want to extend this model, so our students will have the best possible student experience during all of their years at Carolina. We will reimagine the entire four-year experience, as well as the transition to their first jobs.
We will initiate a university-wide effort to facilitate and promote 4-year graduations by streamlining course requirements in all our degree programs.
We will unveil a significant tenure-track faculty hiring initiative, because we need more tenure-track faculty to teach a growing student body and to advance our research goals. At the same time, we will prioritize the well-being of our current faculty by updating professional development and teaching support and by addressing salary and promotion needs for professional-track faculty.
As we look to the future, we will also continue to honor our history. Last week, we marked the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of USC in 1963. We are looking forward to the arrival and placement of the statue memorializing the three courageous African American students who led USC into the modern era of desegregation. And we will also observe the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction-era desegregation efforts.
In the research arena, we will focus on innovative ways to facilitate research productivity and improve our research infrastructure. We will continue the development of our five interdisciplinary research institutes and the Brain Health Network, as well as the regional technology hub we are seeking to establish.
We will focus on creating and enhancing centralized core facilities that provide access to equipment, instruments and expertise for our researchers. We will improve and expand research training programs, especially for faculty in the early stages of their careers. And through renovation and new construction, we will increase the number of available research labs.
And finally, we also plan to celebrate this coming year! In October, we will celebrate the grand reopening of the South Caroliniana Library, a renovation project supported by a significant philanthropic gift. We will shine a spotlight on the impact of other transformative donor investments in November. And Ray Tanner assures me that we will have plenty of wins to celebrate on the fields and courts of college athletics, as well!
Over the past year, I have traveled across our state and country on behalf of our university. I have spoken to countless alumni groups, chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, tailgaters, donors, fans, you name it! What I heard everywhere is strong support for USC and an urgent, positive message to keep doing the great work we are doing, and to keep moving forward fast. In physics terms, I interpret this to mean: Keep building momentum! We have work to do, and we are positioned well to do it.
Every day, as I walk across this campus, I have the privilege of crossing paths with members of one of the most talented communities of people you can imagine. I get to speak to bright students who are on their way to or from classes. I talk with faculty and staff members I meet on the Horseshoe who work in our many disciplines and divisions on campus. And I love the spontaneous moments when I encounter University Ambassadors leading groups of families and prospective students, and they let me share a few words about what makes USC special. What unites all these people from diverse backgrounds, in every sense of the term, is their common desire to advance in life through education and their common belief that learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.
I want to thank all of you who play a role in the mission of this university – all of the people who sustain and uplift us. Together, we are writing a great new chapter in the long life of the University of South Carolina. Together, we are imagining and building the future of our state. Thank you for being here today! Go Gamecocks!