Pastides' report card for USC: More successes than stumbles

ashain@thestate.comAugust 25, 2013 

File: University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides.


— Longtime University of South Carolina trustee Eddie Floyd is never shy about speaking his mind – even if it might ruffle a few Gamecock feathers.

And he’s blunt in his opinions about president Harris Pastides, who celebrated his fifth anniversary leading the school this month.

“USC is on a roll,” the Florence surgeon said. “The university is in the best shape in any period of time that I have been associated with it. I knew he would do a good job but not as good a job as he has done.”

Under Pastides – the New York-bred, Yale-educated son of Cypriot immigrants – South Carolina’s flagship university has reached record enrollment, added faculty, hit fundraising marks, built up its endowment, and had its most successful run in athletics. The school also has undertaken nearly $600 million in new construction and renovations.

“There is across campus a strong current of optimism,” USC provost Michael Amiridis said. “We are expecting some of the best days of the university lie ahead.”

Pastides, 59, has won over donors, politicians, developers and a few ball coaches with his sense of humor and direct approach.

“He wants your opinion,” USC trustee chairman Gene Warr said. “He does not have to be the biggest guy in the room.”

Still, Pastides has faced some questions.

The unfulfilled, lofty promises of the $144 million Innovista research campus have become a political football among lawmakers. USC’s ever-rising tuition, which ranks in the Top 100 among public colleges nationwide, is a sore spot with parents and students. And as development on campus has ramped up, so have concerns about whether the school should keep piling on more debt.

In his three decades in the Legislature, Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman said he has never seen as much construction on USC’s campus as during Pastides’ five years in the president’s office.

“We need to take a step back and take a deep breath,” the Florence Republican said.

But like other state leaders, Leatherman is a fan, saying Pastides is doing “a tremendous job.”

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, a USC alum who has donated $30 million for the university’s scholars program bearing his family’s name, is impressed with the sense of normalcy Pastides brings to the job.

“He gets along well with the students, and gets out and mingles with them, and his wife does the same thing,” McNair said. “He’s a real person and not a figurehead.”

USC football coach Steve Spurrier said Pastides deserves much of the credit for USC’s success on the athletic field, including two straight 11-win football seasons and two national baseball titles. The president, along with former athletics director Eric Hyman, pushed for better facilities and higher coaches’ salaries while improving classroom opportunities for student-athletes through a new academics center.

“He’s a wonderful man to work for,” Spurrier said. “We’re in competition with all those other universities. You’ve got to keep up and get better than the competition, and he’s understood that. He gets it.”

‘Baptized by fire’

Pastides arrived at USC in 1998 to lead the Arnold School of Public Health from the University of Massachusetts, where he had been a dean and an epidemiology professor.

John Palms, USC’s president at the time, said he tried to hire deans who could become presidents.

But even after Pastides was promoted to vice president of research, Palms said he was not certain Pastides could be a college president. “I had questions about whether he would be able to make the tough decisions, but that confidence builds up.”

Former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said Pastides has the right combination of traits for the job.

“You want the smartest man available,” Coble said. “You want to have a great personality and maybe a little ego to get things done.”

Pastides was being considered for two other presidential jobs – at Georgia State and the University of Massachusetts – around the time USC was searching for a successor to Andrew Sorensen.

Weeks after being named USC’s president in 2008, Pastides received a jolt as the state demanded funding cuts after the recession took hold in South Carolina.

“He was baptized by fire,” said Mark Becker, USC’s provost at the time, who now is president of Georgia State University.

Former faculty senate chairwoman Sandra Kelly said Pastides has a high-approval rating among instructors, in part for his handling of those cuts. Pastides’ policy of no layoffs or furloughs won over staff, though they were not happy about not getting raises.

“We did not get hammered to death,” Kelly said.

Pastides used the goodwill built during the budget cuts to ask faculty to handle larger classes without an increase in teaching assistants as enrollment grew. He also promised to hire more full-time faculty, which had not increased from around 1,000 for several years. USC is adding 250 professors by 2015.

“He said we really had no choice. ‘This is how we have to deal with the budget,’ ” Kelly said. “He handled this in a very transparent manner. It trickles down.”

The president who listens has helped set fundraising records regularly. Annual contributions have risen by about 40 percent, approaching $150 million last year, while the school’s endowment has grown 21 percent to $514 million.

“That part of the job comes naturally to him,” said Michelle Dodenhoff, USC’s vice president of development until earlier this year. “He’s extraordinarily good in keeping people close to him.”

Early on, Pastides pushed school fundraising goals. USC’s large Carolina’s Promise campaign aimed to raise $750 million before Pastides’ appointment. He suggested going for $1 billion. The school has raised $756.5 million with two years remaining.

“He is a perfectionist in the positive sense of the word,” Dodenhoff said. “When we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it 100 percent, and we will do it right.”

Pastides also understands the draw of athletics, demanding excellence and integrity.

When asked to list his Top 5 favorite moments in his tenure, Pastides named three from sports – baseball’s two national titles in 2010 and 2011, football beating then top-ranked Alabama in 2010 and last year’s birthday-get-well party for injured star running back Marcus Lattimore.

Athletics director Ray Tanner, the champion baseball coach whom Pastides promoted to run the Gamecocks’ sports programs, said the school president is genuine with the coaches and players.

“I dare you to go to a lot of college campuses across the country and go, ‘Who’s your president?’ ” Tanner said. “I don’t know a lot of athletes who would get it right. They get that right here.”

Still, Pastides – the Southeastern Conference representative on the NCAA board – said he watches to ensure athletics do not dominate USC.

“I have to mind that it doesn’t become the tail that wags the dog,” he said. “It won’t under me. It won’t become more important than the university itself. It is a lubricant.”

The building boom

In the worst economy since the Great Depression, Pastides doubled down on development on campus.

“Everyone is going through this, but how we emerge ... is going to determine who are going to be the leaders for the next five to 10 years,” Amiridis said. “We navigated it aggressively.”

Taking advantage of cheap interest rates and unused debt capacity, the school has developed 30 projects valued at $596.6 million since Pastides took office – including $103 million for the two Innovista buildings and $106.5 million for a new business school, according to data compiled by the university.

Another $114 million in work – including a new $36 million baseball stadium – started before Pastides was named president but has been completed since his term started.

Not all of the money came from university coffers or bonds. Donor contributions as well as state and local governments helped pay for parts of projects.

Still, Pastides asked trustees to borrow more to back the building boom. Non-athletic debt has grown 41 percent throughout the eight-campus USC system over the past five years, while athletic debt has grown nearly 150 percent. Overall, USC has added $191 million in debt since 2008.

“In today’s competitive environment in higher education, one cannot wait for ‘better times’ to provide the best campus possible for its students and faculty,” said Lake City financier Darla Moore, the school’s largest benefactor and a former trustee. “Harris, better than anyone, understands the need to continue moving forward, especially in times of economic uncertainty.”

USC’s Columbia campus continues its westward stretch, started in recent years with the new Arnold School of Public Health building, the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, the Greek Village and Innovista. The new business school, next to Carolina Coliseum, will open this year and lead more students across Assembly Street.

Some are wary about all the construction. In recent months, state committees that approve college building projects, including one that Sen. Leatherman chairs, have asked for more information from USC before pushing more work ahead.

“People ask if we are being conservative. I assure them we are,” said Warr, the trustee chair. “We want to keep that bar moving higher. Each project has stood on its own.”

‘University is our growth engine’

A subtext of the campus building boom is Pastides’ aim to shape USC as an economic-development driver.

A focal point after Pastides became president was the Innovista research campus, an idea started under his predecessor, Andrew Sorensen. The sour economy and Innovista leadership problems, which created problems finding private partners, dragged down the $144 million project.

Pastides worked to regain footing by bringing in former pharmaceutical executive Don Herriott to manage Innovista and tweak its mission. The two existing Innovista buildings finally received final funding to complete interior work last year.

Pastides also ramped up the university’s offerings of research and resources to the business community by shifting entrepreneur Bill Kirkland into a new office of economic engagement.

USC also is working on public-private partnerships to develop new dorms and classrooms, and research space in Innovista.

And the school kicked off an aerospace education center named after Ronald McNair, a S.C. astronaut killed in the Challenger space shuttle explosion, in a state that has the only Boeing plane-manufacturing plant outside of the Seattle area.

“He recognizes that USC, as the state’s flagship university, must be a real partner with the state in economic development,” said Moore, who helped fund the center with Charleston’s Anita Zucker, the wealthiest person in the state, according to Forbes magazine. “I believe these are standards he must continue to support.”

Developers who have done work in Columbia praise Pastides for thinking about the school like a business.

“The university is our growth engine,” Columbia developer Don Tomlin said. “I am impressed (Pastides) spends significant personal time in the development world. He’s building the wherewithal for the school to thrive.”

Still, some question the school’s economic-development focus.

“They are off mission,” said Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council think tank. “The focus of our universities is not job creation. It’s supposed to be education – period. We’re told our universities are training a workforce. When did this happen? (The Legislature) put USC in charge of revitalizing the economy. I think it’s the kind of school only a few people want.”

Innovista was “a colossal waste of money,” Landess said. “We have enough buildings. From where we sit, we don’t see a measurable impact from all this debt and spending.”

But Pastides notes economic development is one way that lawmakers evaluate colleges and their funding, and could become an even more important part if the state adopts new performance-based incentives for its public colleges. “It is not only the right thing to do as a flagship university, but we’re going to be evaluated on it.”

Academics is not paying for development, Pastides said. In addition to bonds, he said the money for the projects comes from grants and contracts as well as the school’s foundations.

Money matters

Like other colleges nationwide, USC is going through a shift in how it gets money.

Since Pastides has taken office, the school has lost a quarter of its state funding because of recession-driven budget cuts.

To compensate for those cuts, USC’s tuition has risen 19 percent – more than twice the rate of inflation – and enrollment has grown by more than 3,800 students.

Despite those higher costs, the school remains popular, especially with the recent success of the football team. Applications have risen by 38 percent since 2008.

But while USC’s enrollment has grown during the past five years, the percentages of African-American and S.C. students who attend the university have shrunk. African-American enrollment, for example, has dropped to 11.1 percent from 11.7 percent.

“There is increased competition for qualified African-American students from our state, especially from out-of-state, wealthier universities,” Pastides said. “They offer large scholarships. We must raise more money … to retain them in state.”

The percentage of S.C. students on campus also has continued a slide that started before Pastides’ tenure, falling to 64 percent from 68 percent since 2008.

Pastides notes the overall number of S.C. students at USC continues to increase as its enrollment has grown. Having out-of-state students, he said, “is good for South Carolina as well as for USC.”

“Importing a qualified workforce from beyond our borders increases the intellectual capital of the state, and it increases wealth as well,” he said.

Making friends

Just as he has learned how to manage athletics, Pastides has learned how to maneuver around the political circles in the state capital.

Pastides makes budget requests for just a few projects – the ones he really thinks the school needs. Lawmakers echo Gov. Nikki Haley’s assessment that Pastides comes prepared to pitch his main requests.

“He presents a business plan,” said Haley, whose office reviews USC’s budget requests. “When he wants something for the university, he says why he wants it and where he wants it to go.”

After falling sharply for a few years, USC’s state funding has risen slightly over the past two years as money has been added for new programs to make college more accessible, such as the online Palmetto College and expanded summer semester.

In his board room, Pastides has developed support by keeping trustees informed, Warr said.

Pastides also brought a change of pace to the president’s office from his predecessor, Sorensen, who won praise for increasing the amount of money USC brought in from research but sometimes was faulted as a diplomat.

“Sorensen was very dictatorial in a way,” said Floyd, a trustee for 31 years. “He was easy to talk to, but he was never flexible at all. If you had an issue, there was not much compromise.”

Pastides makes friends easily.

Nathan Hatch, a Columbia native who is Wake Forest’s president and the NCAA’s chairman, said Pastides is a respected voice on the board of that athletic governing body. The pair chat occasionally about running schools in the Southeast.

“He’s smart and funny,” Hatch said.

Pastides said Hatch is among the people he consults for occasional advice.

Others include: U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-Columbia; U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca; Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a former USC student body president; Bob McAlister, a Columbia communications consultant and former chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell; and Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Institutions and a former president of Michigan State.

Pastides also leans on USC chief financial officer Ed Walton and academics chief Amiridis, who remains in awe of Pastides’ stamina.

“I see him at a reception at the end of the day, where I really don’t want to talk to anybody, and you see him being at his best,” Amiridis said. “Sometimes, I look at him and say to myself, ‘How can you be smiling right now?’ ”

The school’s run of good fortune has helped keep Pastides excited about his job, Amiridis thinks.

“If you’re playing defense all the time, I think it wears on you,” Amiridis said. “We’re on the offense more than we are on the defense. … You’d expect after five years there would be some kind of erosion. It doesn’t show.”

Past presidents

A look at the legacies of USC’s past four full-time presidents:

James Holderman (1977-90): Gave the school prestige by bringing world leaders to campus, including President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and creating the Honors College and building up the business school. Promised to make USC a Top 10 school by its bicentennial in 2001. Raised a lot money but also spent a lot too – controversially. Resigned after his spending habits became public. Fell into legal trouble that included a prison stint.

John Palms (1991-2002): The Georgia State president was brought in to stabilize USC after Holderman. Started turning around the athletic department and kick started some new development on campus.

Andrew Sorensen (2002-’08): The University of Alabama president emphasized increasing the amount of research money that flowed into USC. Nurtured the Innovista research campus, which failed to meet lofty expectations. Played his trumpet with the band at football games, but his manner did not always rub trustees and faculty the right way.

Harris Pastides (2008-current): USC’s research head had to make budget cuts because of the recession but used low-interest rates and the school’s untapped borrowing capacity to go on an academic-dorms-athletics building boom. Has used goodwill built with trustees and lawmakers to create a new online college and expand the summer semester.

How the University of South Carolina has fared during Harris Pastides’ five years in leading the school, from the 2008-09 school year through 2012-13. (Data is for the Columbia campus unless otherwise noted.)

Category 2008-09 2012-13
Student applications17,01823,429
Students admitted9,95414,199
Freshmen enrolled3,8594,625
Average SAT score11911199
Freshman retention rate87.2%87.2%
African-American students11.7%11.1%
S.C. resident students68%64%
Four-year graduation rate46%56%
Degrees awarded (system wide) 8,433 10,048
Faculty 1,709 2,051
Faculty-student ratio 18 to 1 17 to 1
Full-time faculty salary average $78,089 $86,552
Endowment (system wide) $425.2 million $513.9 million
Fundraising (system wide) $106.2 million $146.9 million
Research awards (system wide) $206 million $238.3 million
Debt (system wide) $335.6 million $506.9 million
US News & World Report ranking 108 115
Pastides’ salary $535,000 $681,200

SOURCES: USC and staff research

Five years of change

How the University of South Carolina has fared during Harris Pastides’ five years in leading the school from the 2008-09 school year through 2012-13. Data is for the Columbia campus unless otherwise noted:

Category 2008-09 2012-13
Enrollment 27,488 31,288
Six-year graduation rate 67% 72%
Tuition and fees (in-state) $8,838 $10,488
State funding $140 million $104.8 million

SOURCES: USC and staff research

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