ORANGEBURG -- The sounds of hammering and scraping punctuate the summer air at S.C. State University, as workers toil to bring an old residence hall back to use.
It is a project they are approaching with great care, not unlike the university-wide restoration George Cooper hopes to oversee as the school's new president.
Cooper, a former top official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began his tenure Wednesday with a 5 a.m. walk at the athletic track, followed by a meeting with the former administration's staff, followed by a meeting with an alumnus who presented a $20,000 donation to the school. Then, he met with local media, the new football coach and out-of-town media and took a brief stroll to a dining hall, where he bent his long frame down to shake hands with students.
All before noon.
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Cooper, 63, will need to sustain the type of energy and enthusiasm he demonstrated on his first day to return the shine S.C. State lost after the messy end of Andrew Hugine's presidency.
A pair of board members quit after their colleagues voted against renewing Hugine's contract. Alumni were divided. Members of the General Assembly, who try to look out for the school financially, fumed. One even proposed legislation to restructure the board.
Perhaps most ominously of all, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the school's most powerful backer, was angered by the way Hugine was treated.
Cooper, a soft-spoken man of imposing size, seemed entirely undaunted Wednesday. Not unmindful, just undaunted.
"I can't change history," Cooper said.
He has plans, however, to make some positive history of his own at S.C. State.
"We're going to be a student-centered university. We're going to be uncompromising in standards. We're going to be competitive."
An academic review last year found freshman retention rates were dipping even as enrollment increased. The review found many of those coming in are not prepared for college, denting the university's academic reputation.
That review was cited as one of the reasons Hugine's contract was not renewed. He had earned $220,000 per year. Cooper's compensation will be determined at a board meeting today.
Those who have gotten to know Cooper believe he is up to the challenge.
"He is a very, very engaging personality," said Delbert Foster, who oversees extension programs at S.C. State that promote community health and provide job and computer skills. "I don't know of a person who would be a better fit for us at this time."
• Age: 63
• Born: Tallahassee, Fla.
• Family: Wife, Diane Delois Shaw; children, Nikki Angela Cooper, Carey Allison Cooper
• Education: Bachelor's degree, Florida A&M University; master's degree, Tuskegee University; doctorate, animal nutrition, University of Illinois, Urbana
• Professional experience: U.S. Department of Agriculture executive. Coordinated $140 million in grants in education, research and extension for land-grant universities and other institutions. Worked with USDA since 1991.
• Academic experience: Professor of animal science, Alabama A&M University, Normal, Ala., where he taught graduate students and supervised graduate research in animal science; executive assistant to the president of Alabama A&M, 1988-89; vice president for academic affairs, 1985-88; taught and was a dean at Tuskegee University in Alabama, 1978-85.