By David Lias
“Transitions can be tough.”
That was the message driven home time and again Thursday night by Nate Welch, president/CEO of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company, at the organization’s annual banquet held Thursday night, April 5, in the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.
The theme of the event was “The Spirit of Legacy,” and the featured guest of the evening was University of South Dakota President James W. Abbott, who in about two months will step away from his 20-year career at the helm of the university and retire.
“Vermillion is going to miss Jim Abbott tremendously – we’ve been incredibly lucky to have him, and now we’re anticipating something new,” Welch said. “As a community, we’re looking at a time of great transition – a new USD president, a new governor, a new Vermillion NOW! campaign. The makeup of our communities and workforce are changing nationwide from technology to generational shifts.”
He noted that many communities facing transitions are fearful. At best, they hope to move forward and at worst they’re concerned about losing ground they’ve gained, Welch said, adding that by 2025, millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce.
Vermillion, Welch said, is “ahead of the game” because it’s not afraid of the transitions that lay ahead.
“We’re ready for them. Transition is the one constant we have, especially in this community. You, the membership and board of the VCDC, have created a strong Chamber and Development Company that provides the structure to take our community’s goals and ideas from vision to reality,” he said. “With our volunteers and continued engagement in every sector, we’re set up perfectly for transitions, even when they’re hard.”
The typical keynote speech at the annual VCDC event was replaced Thursday with a dialogue between South Dakota Board of Regents President Bob Sutton and Abbott. Much of their conversation, before a banquet crowd of 400 people, touched on many of the themes brought up earlier by Welch.
Sutton asked Abbott to describe the biggest change he’s seen at the university and the community since his first day as USD president 20 years ago.
“I think about the building that’s going on in Vermillion,” Abbott said. “I know that people complain about how things are a mess downtown and that kind of stuff, but think about the progress that such a mess means … think about the restaurants that we have that we didn’t use to have. Think about housing.”
Bliss Pointe, a new housing project in Vermillion that has spurred the construction of a number of new homes, is wonderful, he said.
Sutton asked Abbott to share his thoughts about the future relationships between USD and the Vermillion community.
“I think that’s an important question, because we’re entering a time where public education is in for a tough time,” the USD president said. “I think it’s fair to say that there is little appetite at the state level … for increased funding for higher education, and for K through 12, for that matter.”
Abbott noted that when he graduated from high school in 1966, there were 15,500 high school graduates in South Dakota. Now there are about 8,700, but both USD and SDSU have much higher enrollments than they did a half century ago.
“I think the universities in our system that will continue to do extremely well are those where there is a constant emphasis on public/private partnerships,” he said.
Abbott admitted is it becoming difficult to be on campus knowing that he will be leaving fairly soon.
“I’m also so absolutely aware that the next 100 years are going to be as good as the last 160 (for USD),” he said. “I know we’ll get a great president; I know he or she will be well supported by people here in Vermillion.”
Abbott said there’s nothing better than being president of your alma mater.
“I don’t think there’s a better job anywhere,” he said. “The intensity of the emotion … is a quality that, at least for me, has been very helpful.”