James “Jim” Rankin first set foot on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus as an incoming freshman in the fall of 1974.
At the time, he recalls, there would have been no imagining his return, 44 years later, to become the university’s 19th president.
“Not a chance,” Rankin said with a laugh. “I think at that point I was just worried about becoming a sophomore.”
Rankin, originally from Draper and Fort Pierre, worried and studied his way to a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Mines in 1978.
He met with reporters in Rapid City on Thursday for the first time since returning to the city Jan. 8.
Rankin, who was appointed by the state Board of Regents in November, outlined some of his goals as university president.
Before accepting the post, he was vice-provost for research and economic development at the University of Arkansas. His leadership at the Fayetteville campus helped generate more than 50 startup companies and increased annual external funding to $103 million.
Rankin earned his Ph.D. and master’s in electrical engineering at Iowa State University. His career took him to Rockwell-Collins, where he worked as an engineer. He also taught at St. Cloud State University and Ohio University.
Rankin succeeds Heather Wilson, who left in May to accept President Donald Trump’s appointment as Air Force secretary.
He inherits a university boasting a 98 percent placement rate for its science and engineering graduates in nine of the last 10 years. Last year saw the placement rate slip to 96 percent.
“I know it can’t go much higher (than 98 percent), but we want to make sure it stays there,” he said.
Rankin also wants to boost enrollment, with a goal of 3,000 undergraduate students. There are currently around 2,400 undergraduate students at the school.
He said a state Board of Regents decision approving in-state tuition fees for qualifying new and transfer students from Colorado and Nebraska will be key to helping Mines increase its undergraduate enrollment.
Rankin also hopes to boost fundraising efforts to increase the number of scholarships offered to students, and increase research by Mines faculty and students with an eye toward increasing business development in Rapid City and the Black Hills.
He said the campus already has 30 entrepreneurs-in-residence helping students who want to start companies through the Black Hills Business Development Center, which recently announced plans to expand from the Mines campus with another location at 108 Main St.
“The seeds are planted. We just need to keep helping in that area,” he said.
Rankin hopes to meet soon with city officials to learn of continuing efforts to link the Mines campus and the city business district through expansion of the downtown core east of Fifth Street, along with expansion of the business development center.
“We’ve always had that little bit of distance between us, and if we can add new businesses, we want to help participate in that. If we can help in company attraction or with start-up companies, we like to do that,” Rankin said.
Much has changed on the Mines campus and in Rapid City since Rankin left, while some things were quickly familiar.
Long gone is the March-Dake Dormitory and an old classroom building, whose location is marked with an arch. The campus has expanded to the west with the addition of three new dormitories.
Rankin recalls O’Harra Stadium with its unique multi-tier parking and Surbeck Center, where incoming students received their green frosh beanies.
“Some of those good memories came back,” he said.
Rankin said he will spend much of his first days back on campus meeting with student, staff and faculty and also get to know Rapid City again.
“This isn’t just me deciding to throw out an idea, this is really all of us deciding together how we want to move forward,” he said.