When Harris Pastides became president of the University of South Carolina, the now-incoming freshmen were just seven years old.
During Pastides’ 11-year term as president, there have been a share of “jump-for-joy” moments, like when USC beat No. 1 ranked Alabama in football or when the honors college was ranked No. 1 in America.
There were the everyday pleasures, like when students frequently approached Pastides on the street and asked for a selfie. There were everyday struggles, like persuading state lawmakers to fund USC at the required levels.
And of course, there were bittersweet days, such as many of those since he announced he would be retiring on July 31.
Pastides recently met with The State to talk about his years at USC and his plans for retirement. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: After 11 years at the post, how does it feel?
A: Complicated is probably the best word. Shortly after I announced, I probably had buyer’s remorse. And so for a while I wondered whether it was the right decision, but the longer away from the decision we got...I wouldn’t say jumping for joy happy, but it’s feeling comfortable.
Q: Are you still going to be traveling after retirement?
A: We’ve got two trips planned, one in the fall kind of corresponding with the beginning of football season, which I think will be healthy for me to more or less be away from for my benefit, maybe also for the interim president’s benefit. You don’t want to be the guy hovering in the shadows and attracting people or students over. So we have a trip to the Greek Islands and to France in the fall and we have a trip to Ireland in April of next year.
Q: You had talked about coming back to USC. How do you envision that?
A: I’ve been offered or given the title of president emeritus, and when people ask what emeritus means, I say ‘formerly important.’ But I’ll have an office on campus and I’ll be available to mentor students and or young faculty; maybe to help the university in areas I’m asked to help. I’ll find new ways to serve USC, no doubt.
Q: Will you be teaching classes?
A: Not right away. I think I might grow into that. Frankly I’m intimidated by how quickly two things have changed. One, my own field of epidemiology, I’d have to catch up, like ‘what’s happened in the last decade.’ And number two, the teaching methodologies. Blackboard, I know about that, but I also remember transparencies and slide projectors and chalk and blackboards. It’s not that I would never want to do it. I just need some time to re-calibrate and adjust. If I’m going to be a professor, I’m going to be the best I can be and I’m not ready to do that right away.
Q: Talk a little bit about Brendan Kelly. What does he bring to the table as interim president of USC?
A: I hired him, so I remember the search to find the best chancellor in the world, if you will, for USC Upstate. I knew his boss very well. We had served together at the NCAA. Look, I was concerned about his age at the time. His boss said, yes he is young, but mature, articulate, trustworthy, committed, hard working and you know we vetted him and I’ve been happy with the hire every day since…He’s done a great job, become a colleague of mine. When the board (of trustees) chose him, I said ‘good choice.’ I think he’ll do very well and he’ll have my full support, and not like ‘Brendan I think you messed up today.’ It’s more like ‘oh it’s Brendan calling, I’ll be there for him.’ That kind of thing.
Q: Does Dr. Kelly have what it takes for a more permanent role as USC president?
A: Time will tell. I also think it’s not right for me to weigh in much on that question. Because once I do it becomes a tainting whether I say no or yes. ‘Well Harris thinks he’d be great so let’s not look for anyone else’ or ‘Harris doesn’t think he’d be great so let’s hurry up and look for someone else.’ I don’t really want to get involved in that. But if you’re asking me will Brendan Kelly be a university president here or elsewhere someday after USC Upstate, I would say ‘sure, he will.’
Q: During your time USC has grown by a large margin. Columbia is only so big. What is the right size for USC?
A: I think we are dense enough now that we need to continue to meet the demand on our growth by continuing to invest in faculty and technology and housing, student housing like Campus Village. If growth is going to happen, and it might, it needs to be done judiciously and after we catch up with reinvesting what students need to have a first-class education.
Q: A byproduct of USC’s increased growth has been an increased number of students in the Five Points area. Obviously this year, with the death of Samantha Josephson, it has put a pretty grim exclamation point on student safety. Do you think Columbia is heading in the right direction, whether it’s through Dick Harpootlian’s efforts or through USC’s efforts to challenge liquor licenses?
A: I do. And I think the real issue, on the student-side, is binge drinking behavior. You know, really seems to be concentrated in younger students more than in older students. This is not a USC issue. It’s a Clemson issue. It’s a Chapel Hill issue, it’s a Harvard issue, frankly. And you put easy access to things and a couple of bad bars, if you will, in the Five Points area who might casually look at an ID and let people in, and who may serve late and not care whether a student appears to be inebriated. I think the efforts of late to tighten up on licensure, make them serve food, to make them pay more or close early, I think that’s probably the right place to be.
Q: One of the prevalent trends in higher education, and USC is no exception, is increasing tuition. This year, tuition increases were kept to their lowest rates in 20 years thanks to increased state funding. Is there any way tuition could ever go down? Going forward what is the best way to address the cost of college?
A: We did have a good year this year. It was a year to say ‘thank you,’ and I’ve written a thank-you letter to every member of the House and Senate. But it’s a beginning. I think before we can start thinking about a rollback we need to think about a cap. And then we need more need-based aid. Unfortunately, the state offloaded some of their funding responsibility to the lottery program, and the lottery is a merit-based program. So what do you do for the kids who come from really income-limited families whose parents who have almost nothing to contribute to college?
And then, what we did with Palmetto College, I’m so proud of that. It’s close to, if not the, cheapest way to get a college degree in South Carolina. (You can) start at one of our two-year regional campuses that we have all over the state and finish online, or, even start online because we have four-year online programs as well. So you get a quality education. There’s room for everybody here and I hope that’s the way we keep it.
Q: Best moments at USC?
A: I’ll give you three and maybe it will be a diversity. One speaks to excellence. One speaks to diversity and one speaks to athletics. It’d be hard, but if you pinned me up and said ‘only one, only one.’ I’d probably pick the day that I woke up being told the Honors College rankings for the first time ever were coming out. And I was nervous because my people were telling me we’re going to do well.
So I wake up one morning, unfortunately no coffee, and I look at look at my iPad, and it said ‘rankings,’ and it was sent to me by the dean of the honors college. But there was no ‘whoopie!’ or whatever. I said ‘oh my gosh, here they are. And I was really quite nervous and I decided for some strange reason to look at No. 10 first. And (it was) like Michigan, and nine was like Berkeley, and eight...UT Austin, and like it’s getting better. And I went three, two, and I said ‘holy cow, we’re either not on the list or we’re the top public honors college.’ And there we were. That was like a jump-for-joy moment and I remember every second of that experience.
I also remember beating Alabama at home. It was game day. We allowed students to sleep on the Horseshoe the night before. We had to wake them up at 5:30. They did not want to get up. We threw them out, not me personally, and nobody thought we could win. We had Stephen Garcia and Steve Spurrier and there’s a picture of me after the game. I was wearing a white linen type jacket, a tie and I was like this, and behind me was the scoreboard and it had 0:00 on the clock and I don’t remember if it was 31 to whatever it was, and that was because I had a lot of friends here. We went back and opened champagne. It was unbelievable.
And then the third thing really would be when we received INSIGHT into Diversity’s top award for inclusiveness. And what they looked at wasn’t just the (enrollment) numbers, but they looked at our graduation rate for African American students, which is about the same as it is for white students. There are a lot of universities that accept a lot of African American students, but they often have a higher failure rate, and so the fact that our students, African American and white, graduate at the same rates is a big, big deal. So I think those three moments, there were thousands, and I could keep going now, but I like it because they help me explore three different sides of the university.
But my really happy moments too were just with random encounters with students. A high-five, a selfie, a hug, a ‘would you come to lunch?’ ‘would you sign this?’ ‘Can I ask you for advice?’ And I think it’s fair to say I’ve never said no in 11 years. I probably did that at the expense of other important things, like policy and I don’t know, writing important treaties and whatever. But to me that’s what it’s all about. And I’ve learned that a leader of an organization can make a very big place seem small, comfortable and positive. But you have to be there for the people all of the time.
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently or done better?
A: I don’t have any frank regrets, like a specific thing that came out badly, but some of the projects we’re doing now, I wish we had done sooner. The students desperately need a second student center. I’m disappointed the Coliseum project isn’t further along. The medical school is a really important priority, . . . and I wish that had been accelerated. [Pastides pauses]
Safety. You can’t take a life back, but I could tell you my darkest moments were calling parents of children who had been critically injured or killed. Martha Childress, who to this day, love that young lady, almost like my daughter. But it makes me weepy. I feel responsible. I do. How could that have happened? What could I have done better? Samantha (Josephson), you know, I thought I was cruising for the finish line here and I got that call. The whole Josephson family was at the Inn and it happened on Friday night, but it got resolved — if you will ‘resolved’ — on Saturday and we went over there and they said Saturday night wasn’t a good time but Sunday morning we went over there at 10. And there were about 10 or 12 of them including aunts and uncles, sisters, boyfriend, boyfriend’s parents. And we stayed together for a couple of hours and I felt, again, responsible. Not just sad, like responsible. Like ‘how could that have happened?’ ‘What are we going to do?’ That really led to the ‘what’s my name’ campaign and there is no way to make up for the life, but I do believe — because I’m in touch with the Josephsons now — and they believe, her life was at least not in vain. That there are other lives to be saved. Uber responded very quickly. Every time I use Uber now, one minute before your car arrives, you get a reminder. They never did that before. I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of users they have, but every single one of them gets a safety reminder and that’s because of Samantha. It was the only thing I knew how to do. Because how many times can you say ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry?’ Let’s do something about it.
Q: USC’s student government has emphasized providing mental health services for other students. Have you been particularly encouraged by that?
A: I adore them for doing that, and we’re not where we need to be. Going back to your question about regret. Not really a regret, but we need to rapidly grow the services provided. Let me say there is an insatiable appetite, because when someone is in need, they don’t, not only want to wait two weeks for an appointment, which they shouldn’t, they don’t want to wait two days. They may not want to wait a day. You can’t really accommodate that. Now, there’s a triage system if it’s a crisis. But we do need to rapidly expand and we need health providers who come from a diversity of background, LGBT, African American, Latino, female, male, the whole gamut. But I’ll be honest, when I was in college, if I had a mental health concern, I would have kept it a secret. I never would have told my buddies ‘yeah, I’ve got an appointment with a psychologist.’ I mean, that would have been a point of ridicule almost. I hate to admit it, but that’s how they would — or *gasps* ‘what’s wrong, are you sick?’ Now they’re like ‘gotta go Prez, got an appointment with my counselor. Yeah I got ADD or I got this,’ or they’re that open with this, and I think that’s a good thing. I really do. I feel the same way about academic counseling and advising and career counseling, but especially about mental health counseling and women’s health issues. We haven’t caught up with the need and I think that’s a high priority for the university.”
Q: I want to talk about your athletic legacy. Do you feel you’ve put athletics on the right track going forward to have what they need to succeed?
A: I think most of what is needed has been taken care of. That doesn’t mean there is no need for more. Seriously, when I went through that, there is not one team that is still dying for something. I mean, you can name any team. I’m not saying there aren’t minor needs here and there. But I think my advice would be for anyone who succeeds me to be a visible fan. Don’t make it contrived. Like don’t ask what a fan is supposed to do? And then go do it. Just go there. Be there. Enjoy it. You don’t know the rules of every sport? I didn’t either.
Q: During football gameday, you’re known to join students in Sandstorm swinging around your handkerchief or pocket square. How did that start?
A: The students certainly had the towels. I was just forgetful and didn’t have a towel, so I would pull out what I had. I would have pulled out a Kleenex… It just seemed normal to do because I would get inspired by you all in the student section and I didn’t have a towel. So necessity is the mother of invention.
Q: Do you remember the first game when you pulled the pocket square out, like what you were thinking?
A: This is dorky. Totally dorky and they’re going to slay me on social media, but I’m looking at the students. They all have them and I don’t. I’m going to do it. I was nervous about it. I thought ‘you’re not a student, don’t pull out the hankey,’ but it was, I kind of couldn’t help myself. I also stormed the court when we beat Kentucky in basketball. I mean, Patricia tried to hold me back as I ran down there. I didn’t, but I wanted to jump in the fountain after we beat Duke in basketball, and I came back and there was a, I don’t know what was going on, but it was the loudest night I’d ever experienced. And they were yelling ‘cancel class!’ ‘cancel class!’ and they were in the fountain, and I thought, but at some point you really do have to say ‘don’t go in the fountain.’ But I was tempted.”
Q: Where do you hope to see USC go in the next couple years?
A: I’d love for them to stabilize, not only with finding the right permanent president but also they’re losing a lot of senior officials now. So many of the top people have departed that you worry a little bit. So I think for a year or two you want to bring some stability back. And then continue the race to be known as one of America’s great public universities. The thing is, if everyone else were standing still, we’d probably soar ahead, but nobody’s standing still.
I told or will tell Chancellor Kelly, there will be a protest sometime during the year. Someone’s going to invite a difficult speaker. Could be from the far left. Could be from the far right. Think about that. How are you going to react? We’re the place and the town square where people can have their say. You don’t like it, you can raise your hand and say you don’t like it. You can quietly hold a sign somewhere. But we’re not going to forbid people from coming to campus if they’re duly invited, if you will, and we have the right protection. That’s who we got to be. Because there’s nowhere else to do that. Where else would people find to do that? So it’s going to continue to be challenging.
Q: What will you miss the most?
A: Really it was the rank-and-file student encounter. I had one today. It’s the simplest thing, but I love the students. I’m very paternal about them. I care that they’re doing well and that they like the university. And if not I want to make it better. But it’s hard being a student today; everyone thinks it’s all about partying. I don’t think you party all that much. You know, you have a good time with your friends. But this myth of can’t wait until Saturday or Friday or Thursday night so you can just get plastered, that is a tiny, tiny minority if at all. They have pressure, academics, social media, bullying, ‘who is my friend?’ ‘what do I look like?’ ‘What does my professor think of me?’ ‘Am I smart enough?’ ‘Am I going to make it?’ That’s what they’re worried about. So if I can give them a little encouragement, and I’ve done that tens of thousands of times, that’s probably (it). And in return, I feel good about that. It puts a smile on my face. That is what I’ll miss the most. But I think if I walk on campus and you see me as a ‘president formerly important’ I think we can still do that. I don’t think that’s going to leave completely. It doesn’t have to.
— Tiffanie Morton and Ann Bailey contributed to this story