President who turned Winthrop University around will leave office Sunday

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 29, 2013 

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    “Tony’s legacy will be his vision for our campus, his leadership in our community and his impact on the lives of our students that will be felt for years to come.” – Kathy Bigham, chairwoman of the Winthrop Board of Trustees

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    “In every area of the mission and purpose of the university, Tony has left his legacy. He has been engaged in helping blend the assets of Winthrop and the community by his personal involvement and institutional outreach. Our city is a better place because of Winthrop and Tony’s leadership.” – Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols

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    “The enhancements made to athletic and recreation facilities at Winthrop during President DiGiorgio’s tenure have made a big difference to our athletic coaches and staff as we compete with other universities for the recruitment of top quality student-athletes. Those developments of campus facilities have played a large part in the many successes we have enjoyed particularly since the year 2000.” – Tom Hickman, Winthrop athletic director

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    “In a crowded athletic auction seven years ago, Dr. D made his way to me to bend down and share that the master of social work degree had just been added to the university. It was a major celebration for me as a WU grad to know this was coming and now I work in that very successful program, which graduated 46 MSWs this past May. We both smile when we talk about it because we remember ‘before’ and his perseverance and vision was what made it happen.” – Linda Ashley, Winthrop social work instructor and director of field and continuing education

Twenty-four years at Winthrop University was always the plan.

But, the Rock Hill college campus that retired Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio encountered in 1989 was hardly anything like it is today.

To transform it, to restore it, to elevate it was going to take work, a vision and time – more time than a typical, short-term presidency would allow, DiGiorgio said.

He and his wife, Gale, found Winthrop 24 years ago after looking for a university with very specific elements.

Sunday is his final day as president.

The reason they stayed, DiGiorgio says, is fairly simple: “The why goes back to why we came in the first place.”

Looking for a public, medium-sized institution close to a big city like Charlotte, the DiGiorgios found Winthrop – a school with a historic look and a wonderful history, he said. A Southern university, close to Gale DiGiorgio’s Kentucky birthplace.

Winthrop fit the bill.

So, when DiGiorgio interviewed for Winthrop’s presidential post after interviews with three other schools and two offers, he said, the couple came to Rock Hill “with this mindset of, ‘We’ve found our place.’

“And it really needed a lot of work. Winthrop was in pretty deep trouble in 1989, in lots of ways.”

Winthrop’s “physical plant” – its infrastructure and the condition of many buildings – needed millions upon millions of dollars of work, DiGiorgio said.

The university’s leadership core and personnel needed a common unifier – a vision, he said, after changing presidents six times in 10 years before DiGiorgio’s arrival.

“One of the biggest issues was, there were wonderful people here, but there wasn’t a sense of common purpose,” he said. “Nobody was holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’

“Winthrop needed a great deal...it wasn’t going to take your normal five- or six-year presidency. It was going to take a lot longer.”

For the DiGiorgios, “longer” has meant more than two decades.

The longest-serving public university president in South Carolina, DiGiorgio says being the chief executive of a college didn’t even cross his mind until a few years before he was selected to lead Winthrop.

At the College of New Jersey, starting in 1970, he honed his ability to manage a range of higher education demands.

There, DiGiorgio learned under a president he describes as a “Prussian general.”

“He knew how to get things done,” DiGiorgio said. “He wasn’t the most amicable person in the world, but he was really good at what he did.”

As vice president for academic affairs, DiGiorgio and his college counterpart “had to get to know how to do just about anything.”

The two vice presidents helped lead the school of about 8,000 students.

By contrast, Winthrop – a school of more than 6,000 students – has five vice presidents and several assistant and associate vice presidents.

In a 19-year career at the College of New Jersey, DiGiorgio and others improved the school’s ranking among U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” consistently to a top spot. SAT scores for enrolled students jumped from an average of 850 to 1200.

The success was a great lesson in setting a vision, he said, “always reaching” and sticking around long enough to see goals achieved.

“You make a commitment that you’re only going to do things if you can do it at an exemplary quality.”

DiGiorgio brought that attitude and his own vision to Winthrop, a former women’s school, known mostly for training the state’s teachers.

He has since propelled the university into national prominence, transformed how the campus looks and collected accolades along the way for leading the school through the recent recession and the challenge of operating with dramatically reduced state funding.

Winthrop’s newest building – its student campus center – was named for the DiGiorgios.

And after one year of retirement, DiGiorgio will return to campus, working from an office in the campus center as Winthrop’s president emeritus.

Overcoming ‘no confidence’

Winthrop’s Board of Trustees was DiGiorgio’s only boss, so his relationship with its members has been crucial to Winthrop’s success, he said.

A sense of trust and candor with the board started even before DiGiorgio was hired. He was frank when he told trustees during his interview in 1989 that his game plan for Winthrop was likely to ruffle some feathers.

“I said, ‘I can pretty well predict something for you. There’s some real changes that need to be made. There’s some real priorities that need to be set. There’s a real qualitative direction that needs to be laid out. That’s going to disrupt things a bit.’”

Six years later, in March 1995, professors voiced the insurrection that DiGiorgio had predicted.

In a 151-13 vote, faculty members sent a message to the board: They had “no confidence” in DiGiorgio during his first few years as president.

The seemingly overwhelming “no confidence” was the beginning of a rough period, he said.

He had pledged his commitment to trustees during his interview, but he told them, “What I need to know is whether you’re willing to stand by me.”

“You know, if I do stupid things, fire me,” DiGiorgio says he told the board. “But if we’re on course, and we’re just getting the dissonance that’s inevitably going to come, then let’s work through it.

“And that’s exactly what happened. I contributed to that early dissonance myself in terms of just freshman mistakes...in terms of the things you have to do: you have to build allies, you have to build a team.”

DiGiorgio says he built the team, but acknowledges that he should have spent more time “building allies.”

“And that was a mistake,” he said. “I suffered the consequences of that with the vote of ‘no confidence.’”

The board stuck with him, and DiGiorgio prioritized acting on Winthrop’s “Vision of Distinction,” he said.

Not all of the initial work to improve Winthrop was “sexy,” he said.

“We weren’t able to do all the cosmetic things at first,” he said, “because we had to put in a new electrical distribution system. We had to take out one that was outlawed by the federal government. We had more roof repairs than you can shake a stick at.

“None of that’s sexy. None of that goes into anybody’s paycheck. None of that makes you look better. It just makes you operate well.”

Facing a long list of needs and a dwindling supply of taxpayer support from the state, DiGiorgio and the trustees looked to higher student tuition to pay for the improvements – something he describes as a “calculated risk.”

Last year, Winthrop’s tuition was higher than any other four-year, public school in the state.

“We always worried about it,” he said. “And yet, even during all the years of construction and all the years of preparation,” enrollment grew.

Guided by a philosophy that “the presentation of the campus needs to represent its overall quality,” DiGiorgio oversaw more than $150 million in capital projects and upgrades, including:

• A new life sciences building, which, when built, was the first new building on campus in nearly 30 years

• The West Center, a workout and wellness facility

• Several new academic buildings

• A revamp of the university’s athletic complex on Eden Terrace

Rock Hill’s higher cost of living – being in “the orbit of Charlotte” – also contributes to Winthrop’s higher tuition rate, DiGiorgio said, as does maintaining Winthrop’s 100 percent accreditation for all academic programs.

Two decades ago, 40 percent of the university’s programs were accredited – a recognition from specialized groups that academic programs have met rigorous standards related to student learning and development.

DiGiorgio has advised trustees to continue to weigh the benefit of accreditation with the cost to meet requirements as the financial climate of higher education changes.

When he arrived, full accreditation was important to bolster the perception of Winthrop in the modern era, DiGiorgio said.

That goal has been achieved, he said, “so I don’t know that you actually need to have the 100 percent to have the credential that says you’re really good.”

Becoming president emeritus

Where Winthrop goes next, he said, could take one of two forms – a “gated community” feel or adoption of an “infusion model.”

Rock Hill and its economic development corporation’s job development strategy called “Knowledge Park” likely will be a big part of Winthrop’s future growth, DiGiorgio said.

As president emeritus, he’ll continue to work with the Knowledge Park business leaders group, he said, but he will not be the one “pulling the trigger” for Winthrop’s involvement.

The Board of Trustees has embraced an “infusion model” for Winthrop’s growth, DiGiorgio said, showing a dedication to Knowledge Park and expanding the campus beyond its current boundaries.

Becoming a “gated community” would be fine for Winthrop, he said, “but that’s not necessarily going to be the catalytic kind of activity that either the College Town Action Plan or the Knowledge Park development might need.”

DiGiorgio worked with the city to form the Action Plan in 2009 as a way to create a “college town” atmosphere and encourage businesses to locate near the campus.

Rock Hill, he said, could be a “quintessential college town that is almost unlike any other.”

Knowledge Park and a trolley proposed to run from Winthrop to downtown is a key to economic development success in the area, DiGiorgio said.

While the DiGiorgios will remain active in the Rock Hill community, DiGiorgio is taking what’s been called a “sabbatical year” following retirement.

“And that’s calculated,” he said, “just in order for other things to move forward.”

DiGiorgio’s successor, Jayne Marie Comstock, moved into Winthrop’s on-campus president’s house last month and takes office on Monday.

The working relationship between Comstock and DiGiorgio is “not defined,” he said.

“And that’s always going to be something that I probably will not talk about,” he said. “Not because I want to be difficult...inherent in any substantive answer to that is the opportunity to read a thousand things into it, depending upon where somebody stands.”

Just as one U.S. president traditionally does not comment on a past president’s performance in office, DiGiorgio said, it’s better that a “veil” come down.

“Obviously we wish everybody well,” he said. “This is a university we dearly love and respect and the stewardship of it has been near and dear to our hearts. We just want to see only good things happen.

“Whatever we can do to foster that, we’re going to continue to do.”

During the “sabbatical year,” DiGiorgio said, he’ll check in daily with many people on campus and spend some time working on a history project that’s already under way in the university’s library archives.

In particular, his retirement will offer an opportunity he hasn’t had for much of his career in higher education.

“I probably will speak out a bit more on some public issues,” he said. “None particularly I want to identify at the moment.”

He’ll also continue his love of art, he said, and possibly be featured in a local exhibit.

“I know I’m not an artist, but I have an artistic bent,” he said. “I have a good eye and I know aesthetics. Why not? Why not step out on that edge a little bit?”

He and Gale are looking forward to the “next adventure,” he said, while staying connected to Winthrop – a university definitively different than the one they first called home 24 years ago.

DiGiorgio describes higher education in South Carolina as a “barnyard filled with various sized animals.” Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina are the biggest.

Over the past two decades, he said, Winthrop has adjusted to stake its claim in the barnyard.

Market studies from DiGiorgio’s first year at Winthrop showed that most people thought of the school as “nice, quiet, sort of bucolic,” he said, known best for educating teachers.

A decade ago, he said, the university did another market study, showing an “absolute turn-around.”

“There was hardly a mention of being a women’s institution,” DiGiorgio said. “And it was vibrant, active, dynamic, high quality, national caliber. Men’s basketball got mentioned, too.

“The public perception had changed, so we have a place in the barnyard now. We’re not going to be the biggest animal, but we may be among the most adroit. And that’s what’s really important.”

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Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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