As the University of South Dakota’s 18th president, Sheila Gestring knows the important relationship between USD and Vermillion.
USD has played a major role throughout the community’s history. Today, the university enrolls about 10,000 students and operates as an NCAA Division I institution.
During her inauguration Wednesday, she spoke of the ties that have existed since 1862, when the land was still Dakota Territory.
However, USD’s existence nearly ended only two decades later, when an 1881 Missouri River flood forced Vermillion’s relocation to higher ground.
“But the people worked to revive the University of South Dakota because it was so critical to Vermillion,” she said.
That relationship continues today, Gestring said during her inauguration address on the USD campus. She spoke of the partnerships between the campus and community, including the City of Vermillion’s recent $700,000 donation to the National Music Museum (NMM) at USD.
The city’s financial assistance will help the renowned museum fund a new 16,000-square-foot addition to the west of the current facility. The project, which includes considerable renovation of the current building, is scheduled for a 2021 completion.
Gestring said she looks forward to more partnerships in the future.
She noted the incredible changes at USD – in terms of programs, facilities and enrollment – since its founding.
She paid tribute to the American Indian tribes that call South Dakota their ancestral homeland. She also credited the hard work and contributions of early settlers, many of them immigrants seeking a new and better life.
USD’’s first students had completed elementary school but not necessarily high school, Gestring said.
“Wouldn’t those early students be surprised at what they find today,” she said.
After surviving the 1881 flood, USD re-opened for classes Oct. 16, 1882. The 69 men and women represented a new era in education.
“You look 130 years later,” Gestring said. “In 2018, USD had the largest entering class in its history with 1,427 students.”
In addition, USD has achieved success not only in NCAA Division I athletics but also as a nationally-recognized leader in research, the professions and the arts, she said.
At the same time, USD has remained true to its mission as South Dakota’s flagship university, she said. In addition, USD remains a public university committed to the liberal arts.
Despite its enrollment and campus growth, USD maintains a family-type bond with the rest of Vermillion, Gestring said.
“We’re part of a close-knit community,” she said.
However, USD also looks beyond its Vermillion home in ways to serve the rest of South Dakota, Gestring said.
In particular, USD has partnered with Sioux Falls, she said. The state’s largest city has reached a population of around 200,000 with continued growth projected in the future.
The Discovery District, a major research park, represents one such joint effort, Gestring said.
“The Discovery District consists of 26 buildings with a value of more than $300 million and employing almost 2,800 people,” she noted.
However, she acknowledged USD also faces challenges in its future. The university must keep higher education within reach for more students.
“As a public university, we must remain affordable,” she said, calling for South Dakota to implement a state needs-based scholarship.
USD has seen benefits through the Dakota Advantage program, offering in-state tuition for students from certain adjacent states, she said. USD has already experienced success for a similar arrangement offered to Iowa and Nebraska students.
Wednesday’s inauguration included greetings from representatives of South Dakota’s congressional delegation, the governor’s office, the District 17 state legislators and the USD and Vermillion communities.
The program also included greetings from members of South Dakota’s other public colleges and universities, along with its private colleges, tribal colleges and technical schools.
During the inauguration, speakers noted Gestring’s achievements since she officially took office last summer.
Nate Welch pointed to the relationship he has enjoyed with USD as president and CEO of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company (VCDC).
Gestring has served five years on the VCDC board, two years as chairman, he said. The bond that started with Gestring’s previous role as USD vice president of finance and its chief financial officer has grown in time, he added.
“She has worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the city and the university,” Welch said.
“The legacy of who we are as a community is intricately tied to the University of South Dakota,” he added.
Another speaker on the program, USD Student Government Association (SGA) president Josh Sorbe, said he was impressed at how Gestring reached out to him and SGA vice president Madison Green shortly after the new president took office.
“Her accessibility is incredible,” Sorbe said, adding Gestring has shown particular interest in keeping USD affordable and in meeting its students’ mental health needs.
During the inauguration, Gestring received pledges of support from two USD-related organizations.
USD Alumni Association board chairman Torrey Sundall represented the university’s 70,000 alumni. “We are South Dakota, and under your leadership, we will make an impact. Go Yotes!” he told Gestring.
Margaret Doyle represented the USD Foundation board of directors. She noted the success of the Onward South Dakota fundraising campaign, which raised $270 million.
Doyle called the figure “transformative.”
Gestring’s predecessor, James Abbott, was on hand for the official transfer of the USD leadership. The two had worked together in administration for years.
Gestring pledged to continue USD’s achievements and take the university into the future.
“We have the chance to influence the world for the better,” she said.
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