In a corner office of Slagle Hall, USD President James Abbott tends to the university’s business, which he’s been doing for more than 20 years.
Abbott, along with nine other people, will be inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame for his contributions to education in the state. The inductees were announced in May and will be formally inducted during a ceremony in Chamberlain, SD on Sept. 9.
Much like the way he supports campus, students support his induction into the South Dakota Hall
“He supports everything so much here at USD,” said sophomore Taylor Frederick. “No matter what it is, whether it’s athletics, anything. He’s supporting everything. That’s great in a president.”
Senior Jake Carroll said Abbott’s induction is well-deserved.
“In about the 20 years he’s been here, the campus has exploded as far as size and options,” Carroll said. “We have new buildings going up and just a bunch of different options that we didn’t even have maybe 10 years ago.”
During his tenure, Abbott has completed and still plans to improve infrastructure, while USD has grown in student population and moved from Division II to Division I.
The Muenster University Center, the Al Neuharth Media Center, the Sanford Coyote Sports Center and the Wellness Center are all among the long list of buildings built under Abbott’s leadership. The university has also grown its marketing department and established a Center for Diversity & Community.
Abbott was born in Sioux City, IA, but spent most of his life in South Dakota. He’s the only president who is an alumnus, having received both his bachelors and juris doctorate from USD.
He spent some time practicing law and as a business man before becoming a politician. In 1991, Abbott was elected to the South Dakota State Legislature, where he represented Yankton County until 1993. During the next several years, he attempted a political career from 1994 to 2002, but was ultimately defeated in each race.
He ran for lieutenant governor of South Dakota on the democratic ticket with Jim Beddow and lost to Republicans Bill Janklow and Carole Hillard in 1994. Abbott was the Democratic nominee for US House of Representatives in 1996 but was defeated by Rick Weiland.
He also ran for governor in 2002 while he was president of USD, but lost to Mike Rounds.
Abbott became president of USD in 1996 after a conversation in a restaurant.
“My wife Colette and I were having dinner in downtown Vermillion,” he said. “We met some friends from Sioux Falls. I was aware that the president had resigned but I hadn’t given it much thought, and our then student body president, Brendan Johnson, walked by, said, ‘Hello,’ and said, ‘You ought to apply for this job, it might be the right time for somebody like you.’ So, I did.”
During Abbott’s presidency, USD has had an evolving commitment to inclusiveness. The university has increased its number of diversity-related student groups and number of non-white students.
“I think that diversity and inclusion are much more on people’s minds (than when I started here),” he said. “I am pleased with the student groups we have that make us all aware that we are a diverse nation.”
The hardest part of the job for him is when students don’t graduate. He said he’s bothered when they don’t, but couldn’t be happier to see those who did move on to bigger things.
“The best day of every year for me is graduation day,” he said. “Nobody is unhappy on that day. Everyone is happy. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re first in your class, you’ve got the diploma. You can move on, and make a better life for yourself and your family.”
Abbott is known across campus for his kindness towards students, staff and faculty.
“He’s so cute and full of USD spirit and energy,” said sophomore Megan Bonar. “He’s like the nicest man I’ve probably met.”