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PIERRE | South Dakota’s two largest public universities received praise from some state lawmakers during budget reviews Wednesday.

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations generally expressed respect for the overall performance and the results at both South Dakota State University in Brookings and The University of South Dakota at Vermillion.

Legislators and audience members, including many of the regents who govern South Dakota’s system of public universities, gave a standing ovation to Jim Abbott.

Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, called for the applause. People rose around him as he sat, then briefly stood, and sat down again at the testifier table.

Abbott retires June 30. He will have served 21 years as University of South Dakota president. Abbott is the longest-serving president at a university in South Dakota. He turns 70 on June 12. Colette Abbott, his wife, died May 4, 2017, after a diagnosis of cancer. 

Abbott recalled how the USD School of Medicine developed, somewhat out of necessity, a doctor-training program nearby in Yankton. Harvard University liked it and adopted a similar approach, Abbott said.

“At Harvard they call it the Yankton program. Everywhere else they call it the Harvard program,” Abbott said.

During his prepared remarks opening the review, Abbott referred to finishing “a two-hundred-fifty thousand” funding campaign. He corrected himself. “Million,” he said. That brought wide laughter.

The state Board of Regents, whose members the governor appoints, chose Abbott to succeed Betty Turner Asher as USD president in 1997.

Abbott was a successful lawyer in Yankton but only a somewhat-successful politician. He served two years as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives and lost in the 1996 Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Then-Gov. Bill Janklow, a Republican, wanted Abbott to get the university post. Abbott later ran for governor as the Democratic nominee, in 2002, while remaining university president. He lost to Republican Mike Rounds.

During Abbott’s presidency many new buildings rose on the Vermillion campus, the medical school reached a peak with a national award last year, and a task force decided to keep the law school on the USD campus.

Abbott meanwhile began working to raise money for scholarships to law-school students. He said Wednesday that 15 law firms agreed to sponsor law students.

The State Bar Association pledged Tuesday to support the scholarship program too, he said.

Barry Dunn, the president of South Dakota State University, stressed during his review that 44 programs at his campus have reached the “gold standard” of accreditation and more are in line.

He said the pass rate for pharmacy students was 98 percent on the national licensure exam last year, above the nationwide average of 90 percent. He said there were similar above-average rates for students who graduated with dietitian and engineer degrees.

Dunn said the high rates indicated “all those underlying courses have to be strong” for the students to perform so well.

But he also noted that Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposed salary policy of zero raises for nearly all state government employees, including faculty at the six state universities, would be the fifth time in 10 years.

Wes Teschetter, the SDSU vice president for finances, and Dunn defended a transfer of 30 positions to university positions from the university’s agriculture experiment operations.

“Why can’t you continue to survive without these 30 FTEs?” asked Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City.

Tschetter said the reassigned slots would perform many different functions, such as advising students and serving in new residence halls. “In turn that helps our retention,” Tschetter said.

“So not one of them you can do without?” Howard asked.

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Dunn said the new slots would be shifted so student services can be expanded as necessary. “It’s a matter of managerial flexibility,” Dunn said. He added that student success is “a major initiative” of the regents.

Dunn later said enrollment numbers are why the strategic management plan was developed five years ago under David Chicoine, the previous president.

“We are poised to grow. We have the infrastructure to do so,” Dunn said.

Rep. John Lake, R-Gettysburg, asked what SDSU’s headcount capacity would be. Dunn said it would be 12,000, and with online courses, 14,000.

“We’ve not achieved those goals. It’s concerning, and we’re working on it,” Dunn said.

Howard said she’s heard questions from parents and taxpayers about an introductory-level arts class that deals in part with “social justice” and “inequity.”

Dunn didn’t back down.

“South Dakota society is becoming more diverse all the time,” he said.

He noted the course isn’t required for all students.

“It’s meant to be provocative,” he said.

Later Dunn said a university research project has preliminary results showing South Dakota corn has a smaller “carbon footprint” than other crops used in ethanol production such as cane from Brazil.

He said the results could open the door to California’s motor-fuels market where South Dakota-produced ethanol isn’t sold now. That could mean 85 cents more per bushel of corn, he said.

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