Politics & Government

August 25, 2013

A day in the life of USC’s president

Squash is supposed to be a stress reliever for Harris Pastides. But the University of South Carolina president mutters loudly to himself and shakes his head after losing a point to professor James Hebert at the school’s Blatt Physical Education Center.

Squash is supposed to be a stress reliever for Harris Pastides. But the University of South Carolina president mutters loudly to himself and shakes his head after losing a point to professor James Hebert at the school’s Blatt Physical Education Center.

The leader of the state’s flagship university grunts while wrestling around the school’s cancer-prevention program director, and flails his racquet at the ball. The two men occasionally argue over the score, their rising voices echoing around the courts. But Pastides would win four games out of the five to begin a busy Wednesday last spring.

A long, narrow, pocket-sized card with Pastides’ schedule for May 1, which the USC president carried, had events from the 7 a.m. squash game through a 7 p.m. S.C. Arts Foundation reception. Later that night, Pastides would board a university-owned plane to fly to a NCAA board of directors’ meeting the next day in Indianapolis.

During that May day leading up to his fifth anniversary as USC’s president, Pastides met with the deans, student-government leaders, representatives of the school’s athletics and business departments, and a group planning a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the school’s desegregation. Pastides also attended receptions for a town-and-gown group and the university’s annual faculty awards ceremony. And he read some of his email and visited with his young granddaughter before she left to go home to California.

Squash, 7 a.m.

Pastides took up squash while in graduate school at Yale University. He started playing regularly at USC more than a year ago, after his wife suggested it as a way to lower his stress.

This is a dressed-down Pastides that few on campus see. He is wearing a faded garnet T-shirt, black shorts and goggles.

He also is very competitive.

Besides scampering around Hebert – a common occurrence since squash includes a bit of informal blocking – Pastides is deft at forcing Hebert to chase the ball with shots that ricochet from the front wall to the back. Pastides wins a game but then argues briefly with Hebert over how many games they agreed to play and who should serve.

Pastides says later he is playing with a sore foot, but he trades the pain for the energy boost the game provides him for his long days.

Pastides showers and dresses in a black pinstripe suit and garnet tie, lined with Gamecocks. He drives a cream and black-trimmed Mini Cooper with a large Gamecock insignia – chosen for him by students – on the roof from the Blatt Center to the Horseshoe, where his office is located.

When he enters the Osborne Administration Building, Pastides usually grabs a copy of The Daily Gamecock student newspaper.

“That will set me off, depending what’s in it,” he says, before heading to his-second floor office.

Setting the day’s agenda, 8 a.m.

Pastides does not sit behind his desk when meeting with visitors. He sits either at a small round table in the front of his office or chairs and a couch in the back.

Pastides and Cantey Heath, special assistant to the president, meet on the couch to go over the day and future public events. Pastides works with Heath, trying to remember the backgrounds of people who the president will meet later. Pastides asks for the resume of a new USC program director and goes over the names of new student officers.

Pastides also gives updates. He says he has asked Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin about having yellow-shirted community workers patrol in Five Points, like those the city has around Main Street. He says the workers make him feel safe when he walks to his church, Holy Trinity, on Sundays and could help ease safety concerns in the city’s nightlife hub for students.

Columbia could “saturate the area with helpful, friendly community people,” Pastides says. “They would be around if a student loses their keys or if a student needs a ride and doesn’t know how to call a cab service.”

Pastides also asks Heath to speak with USC economic engagement director Bill Kirkland about visiting a professor who is developing a biological pacemaker to see if there is entrepreneurial help the school can offer.

Heath and Pastides go over his schedule for the weekend. Pastides will throw out the first pitch in USC’s new softball stadium and then head over to the baseball game to visit donors in his suite.

“Is the box full?” Pastides asks Heath, who nods “yes.” Then the president asks where the baseball team placed in the Baseball America rankings: “I don’t see how you can win two out of three at LSU and not go up?”

Heath says he will have to get Pastides the answer later.

They end by going over upcoming Rotary Club speaking engagements. Pastides also plans to visit a Charleston club later that month but asks Heath to leave him some time back in Columbia to be with his wife for an evening of personal time. Pastides also is scheduled to speak at clubs in Columbia, Charlotte, Augusta, Florence and Sumter. He asks Heath to add a speech in the Conway-Myrtle Beach area, where he thinks he needs to visit.

Athletics, 8:30 a.m.

Deputy athletics director Charles Waddell replaces Heath, and he sits with Pastides at the little table to discuss the next day’s NCAA board meeting. Pastides, the Southeastern Conference’s representative on the board, brings up a planned vote that could toughen college-entry standards for high school students. Waddell asks Pastides to weigh more than grades.

“I have seen student-athletes that come in with 1300 SATs and all the grades, and flunk out in one year,” Waddell says. “I have seen students come in only because they were athletes who graduated. ... They had the desire to do what they needed to do to improve their lives. They were driven. It’s more the intangibles. Give us the ability to make a decision on the intangibles that if we see something special in somebody that we can take the chance.”

Pastides says he is struggling between strict guidelines that can cost an athlete playing time – for example, the now-eliminated “cream cheese rule,” where giving an athlete a topping on a bagel could be an improper benefit – and new rules allowing for unlimited calls and texts to basketball recruits.

“Somewhere between total regulation and the Wild West, we’ve got to figure something out,” Pastides says.

Pastides is a sports fan, especially baseball. He has a rack of signed balls toward the back of his office, though not all are inscribed by athletes. Newsman Tom Brokaw and one-time Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee share a case with sluggers Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson, while golfer Jim Furyk’s is near that of author Elmore Leonard, who passed away last week.

As they break up, Pastides asks Waddell, a former University of North Carolina football player, what he thinks about the Gamecocks’ opener versus the Tar Heels.

“I’m already nervous,” Waddell says. “This trumps Clemson for me.”

The deans, 9 a.m.

As Pastides walks downstairs to a regular meeting with the school’s academic deans, he notes: “Deans are smart. If you tell them everything is rosy, they will remind you it isn’t.”

Pastides enters a crowded conference room. He starts by updating the deans on the school’s success in the Legislature, landing $2.1 million for the online Palmetto College and $2.5 million for an expanded summer semester.

He talks about how the university received the donation of 15,000 pieces of art and maps worth $30 million from New York collector Graham Arader, who had no ties to USC.

“He talked about putting up the artwork everywhere,” Pastides says of Arader.

The president does not face fierce questioning, just a couple of inquiries about the school’s newly revamped economic-development efforts.

The Beaufort speech, 9:30 a.m.

Commencements are about to start.

Pastides will appear at all eight of USC’s campuses with Beaufort up first. He asks interim presidential communications director Kathy Gardner-Jones to make sure his remarks don’t step on those of Beaufort chancellor Jane Upshaw.

“It’s too long anyway. Take out the history and let her talk about that,” Pastides says. “I want to strike more passion about Beaufort – not necessarily about funding. I don’t want to make it dark. More on Beaufort’s incredible and poignant impact on the well-being of the region.”

In the end, he stresses: “I don’t want to be longer than her.”

Status check, 10 a.m.

Gardner-Jones leaves and Pastides starts speaking with assistant Pam Pope over a speaker phone about calls he needs to make. Russ Meekins, director of the USC foundations, and Fred Green, president of the S.C. Bankers Association, are on the list.

Pastides also wants to touch base with Flour Corp. chief executive David Seaton, who heads the school’s $1 billion fundraising campaign, to wish him well after tearing his bicep. “Maybe I won’t tell him I played squash this morning,” he says into the speaker phone with Pope.

He leaves a message for Seaton: “I hope you’re doing well. I would love to hear one way or another that you’re doing OK.”

Sitting at his desk lined with mini replicas of famous buildings, he asks assistant Debbie Owens to hand out to his staff an article about the University of Georgia opening an economic-development office in Atlanta.

Pastides glances at his desktop computer for emails. He will look to see if he can answer some himself from parents or students.

Email traffic grows after events involving campus safety – “I usually say, ‘I am (concerned) too and we’re doing things.’ It’s usually disarming” – and around April 15, when final acceptance letters for applicants are mailed. “I’m swamped with, ‘My kids didn’t get in. What were you thinking? They walk on water.’ ”

Pastides says he rarely gets angry, though there are exceptions.

A student sent an angry email not too long ago about being ticketed for parking his moped near a building. “He figured he needed to let the president know, and that PO’d me,” Pastides says. “And I took more time than I ordinarily would and told him, ‘I hope you’re as passionate about real important issues.’ ... I just wanted him to know it’s not fine to write the president if you think all you’re going to do is vent and all my job is to read it and feel bad. That ain’t happening.

“I invited him to come see me. He just wrote back, ‘Thanks.’ ”

Then, Pastides receives a text from Heath that, despite its two wins over LSU, the baseball team remains ranked 15th by Baseball America.

Next to his computer is a blue folder with items for him to read, including a contribution proposal for a couple whom Pastides knows well.

“Sometimes, a donor is a friend,” he says. “I want to solicit them, but I didn’t want them to get stuff that I don’t feel comfortable about.”

Desegregation, 10:30 a.m.

The break from meetings ends when associate provost Lacy Ford and African American Studies director Valinda Littlefield come to discuss plans for the school’s year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of USC’s desegregation.

They talk about events including a dance concert, speeches, programs with K-12 schools and dedication of a garden and fountain.

Pastides notes not all feelings will be positive. He shares a story about an African-American woman whom he met in his first year at USC.

“A doctorate candidate’s mother was crying, and I thought she was excited,” Pastides says. “She said, ‘I grew up in the shadows of the university. Today is the first day I came on campus because, when I was little, I was not welcome here.’

“I had chills.”

Communications, 11 a.m.

Pastides heads to a conference room across the hall where interim communications vice president Wes Hickman and members of his staff give updates on the school’s marketing campaigns.

They discuss guerilla marketing, such as wrapping a building with an ad for USC that would cost less than a full-page ad in The New York Times. Cocky’s Reading Express, a small bus with a traveling reading program for schools, also could venture into Southeastern cities to promote the school.

The meeting is interrupted when Pastides’ wife, daughter Katharine and 1-year-old granddaughter Penelope arrive in the conference room. Pastides’ daughter and granddaughter are about to go to the airport to return to California after a visit that included a trip to Edisto Beach with the Pastides’ other child, Andrew.

Talk about ads morphs into “What sound does a horsey make?” and discussions about breakfast bowls of oatmeal and pears. Pastides enters grandfather mode, rocking the baby and talking softly to her. He asks his daughter when she will come back. “If I need a fix, I will come out and see you,” he says.

Patricia Pastides asks, “Did you tell them (the marketing group) about my idea about the tail feathers?”

She suggests USC make stickers with the tail feathers of a Gamecock as an iconic logo like the Clemson University tiger paw.

“We have the block C,” Harris Pastides responds.

“That’s athletics,” his wife counters.

“We’ll take that under consideration,” Pastides replies.

After the Pastides family leaves, the group starts talking about the television commercial promoting the school that will run during football games.

Pastides wants to make sure this year’s ad is good – like the one last year, touting the school’s legacies – and not like a previous ad, where a student was shown picking the school like he was an athlete.

“I will see it too many times, and it will continue to make me unhappy,” he says.

The remainder of the meeting goes over revamping the school’s website to make it easier to navigate. Pastides says he will test it as if he were a student, donor and faculty member.

“My perspective on the web: It’s never good enough, and it never will be,” he says. “Perfection is the enemy of excellence. I’m looking for better than perfect.”

Town-and-gown lunch

Pastides has become accustomed to speaking in public over time, taking advice from his son, an actor. “He said breathing is the friend of the public speaker.”

He stands before a few hundred people for the monthly luncheon for University Associates, a town-and-gown group, inside Capstone House.

Pastides starts with an anecdote about making an evening trip to a CVS near campus for baby shampoo. The clerk, a student, recognizes him. “I know. I know. I know. Aren’t you the first lady’s husband?”

The crowd laughs as Pastides says he is about to shake 6,435 hands at 13 commencements. He explains he does not fear the fierce grips of bulky athletes. Instead, jewelry is his curse.

“Up comes a 103-pound co-ed and she comes by with her thumb ring and I look at my hand, ‘What just happened?’”

Another round of laughs.

Pastides gets serious and shares a planned initiative to help students before they arrive at USC by helping K-12 schools.

“You might say, ‘What is a university going to do about that? They aren’t your problem?’ They are our problem. They are all of our problem. Perhaps, we could help with online education.”

The afternoon and evening

Pastides has a few minutes to pack for his trip to Indianapolis so he heads to his house on the south side of the Horseshoe. As he walks, he waves and greets students. He stops to speak to a group of students having a religious conversation. They ask Pastides, a Greek Orthodox, about that faith’s Easter, which is taking place more than a month after traditional Easter celebrations. “If the Passover Seder was the Last Supper, we wait until next full moon,” he explains.

After packing, he returns to his office to meet with Helen Zeigler, associate vice president for business affairs, who updates Pastides on the recent renovation of the nearly century-old Spigner House on the east side of campus.

Money generated by the university’s food service provider, Sodexo, paid for the work on the house, which has been used as an admission office, classroom space and student radio station. Sodexo will have an office upstairs in the renovated building, while the bottom floor can be rented for weddings, Zeigler says.

Pastides then heads over to the Thomas Cooper Library, crowded with students studying for finals, to an auditorium for the annual faculty awards, where he speaks briefly and poses for pictures.

He walks back to his office to meet Kirk Randazzo, director of the Carolina Leadership Initiative, for an update on a new minor in leadership that students can earn. An electronic portfolio of internships and community service can be included in the transcript of students earning the minor.

Pastides talks about pitching the minor to high schools as well as donors who might provide funding.

“Think of the student who has 3.2 GPA but is involved in all kinds of community organizations and volunteers at the homeless shelter or the pet shelter,” he says. “This person now has a way to graduate with a distinction that he or she otherwise would not have access to.”

Pastides’ final meeting of the day is with USC’s three top student-government leaders.

They address public safety first. Student body vice president Ryan Bailey talks about smart phone applications that could call campus police, parents and roommates in case of an emergency.

Pastides asks about using the city’s yellow-shirt community patrols in Five Points to aid students. Student body president Chase Mizzell likes the idea but expresses concern students will see the yellow shirts as the good guys and the police as bad guys.

Mizzell says student government leaders plan more lobbying of local, state and federal governments, including on financial aid issues.

Pastides, who continually must pitch the university to politicians, offers advice. “You can’t just be, ‘We’re big kids and we know you like the university, so please think of us.’ They want written proposals, they want to know what you want. ... Of course, there’s the schmoozing for five to 10 minutes. They’re going to want to tell you about when they were Gamecocks. Then, you need to lobby and not be shy because you may only get that one shot that year.”

Pastides returns to his office. His small table is covered with blue, red and green folders with various reports and a binder for the NCAA meeting. He stuffs them in his briefcase, planning to read them on the flight to Indianapolis.

He goes home to change for the S.C. Arts Foundation Gala at 701 Whaley, which he attends with his wife. After a day of meetings and speaking to dozens of people, Pastides glides through the room, chatting with guests between quick bites of food.

Patricia Pastides lingers a little longer to talk with people as her husband moves to the next group. “I feel like I’m one conversation behind,” she says to one guest.

The president’s wife has become used to the social calendar that goes with the job. “We can have two weeks where we don’t have a night off, but then if we get one whole night off, quite honestly it feels like a week of vacation,” she says later.

At 8:30 p.m., Harris Pastides approaches his wife and leans in her ear to say it is time to leave for his flight.

The president walks out the art gallery’s door and into the night.

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