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Winthrop’s DiGiorgio to retire after 24 years in Rock Hill

Anthony DiGiorgio, who over two decades remade Winthrop University into a sprawling campus that’s drawn national acclaim and a diverse student body, will step down after next year.

DiGiorgio, South Carolina’s longest-serving university president, announced Tuesday that the coming academic year will be his last – although he will be named president emeritus and distinguished service professor. The school will provide him an office in the campus center that bears his name.

Officials have yet to determine how much he will be paid in retirement, Winthrop spokeswoman Rebecca Masters said. He now makes $237,000 a year.

“After 50 years in education – 24 of them at Winthrop by spring 2013 – it will be time that (my wife) Gale and I find out what life is like outside the academic calendar,” he told faculty and staff.

DiGiorgio, 71, ticked off a list of proud accomplishments, but pointed to one he deems most significant: Under his leadership, Winthrop has developed a “high-achieving, diverse, socially responsible student body.”

“There’s still work to do,” he said. “But the plateau where we sit and stand is considerably higher than it was ... and it’s at a point where I think the right leadership can really stand on the shoulders of that and really take Winthrop to national distinction.”

The DiGiorgios said they plan to spend the rest of their lives in Rock Hill.

Winthrop’s Board of Trustees intends to launch a 15-month national search for a successor, chairman Dalton Floyd said.

“The elements essential for Winthrop’s readiness, long-term growth and a continued bright future are well-established, thanks to Tony’s tireless leadership,” Floyd said.

‘We came together’

When DiGiorgio in 1989 became Winthrop’s ninth president, many hoped he would bring stability to a campus that had seen seven leaders come and go in the prior decade.

That notion was threatened when the faculty revolted early in his tenure. But DiGiorgio held on to ultimately oversee a campus remade with new facilities, more students and a higher price tag.

Originally from Sharon, Pa., DiGiorgio and his wife Gale came to Winthrop, then a school of 5,000 students, from New Jersey, where he had been vice president for academic affairs at Trenton State College. His starting Winthrop salary was $90,000.

Winthrop trustees chose him in a close contest with Bernie Dunlap, now president of Wofford University in Spartanburg.

The choice shocked some, former board member David White said, because “the majority of supporters in Rock Hill favored Dr. Dunlap.”

But they were vindicated, trustees said, because DiGiorgio not only had a vision for what Winthrop could become, he had the business acumen to make it happen.

DiGiorgio crafted the school’s first long-term blueprint for the future, a plan later dubbed the “Vision of Distinction.”

The evolving framework, which in some ways became a quest for national prestige, laid out plans to add buildings and grow the student body to better reflect the ethnic and racial makeup of area high schools’ graduating classes.

“I have never seen a leader develop a plan and implement a plan more effectively than Tony,” said Skip Tuttle, a Rock Hill developer and former Winthrop board chairman. “Tony could sell.”

Waters grew choppy in 1994, as months of turmoil over salaries and management came to a head when 86 percent of the faculty cast a vote of “no confidence” in DiGiorgio’s leadership.

A 30-page report by UNC-Charlotte’s chancellor at the time criticized several management decisions and said the president must radically change his leadership to reunite the campus.

On Tuesday, DiGiorgio said he was thankful for the tumult, because it taught him to communicate more effectively.

“I have a style that waits a little, but not a long time,” he said. “I didn’t communicate as well then as I do now.

“I’m glad I survived it. It was an important beginning for us. After that, we came together as a university.”

By 1996, he said, all academic programs had become nationally accredited and construction had started on a series of new facilities.

Things simmered down as the campus moved ahead with an aggressive building program that came to include academic buildings, student housing, cutting-edge technology, the “scholars walk” promenade and new athletic facilities for soccer, tennis, baseball, track and disc golf.

The crown jewel is a $29 million student recreation facility built in 2010 – the Anthony J. and Gale N. DiGiorgio Campus Center. The complex, spanning 125,000 square feet, boasts a movie theater, food court, coffee shop, book store and game lounge.

The student center reflects DiGiorgio’s value on campus, junior Spanish education major Muriel Petersheim said.

“Even though (Winthrop) is a small school, he built it up,” she said.

DiGiorgio said one of his biggest disappointments is not having built a new library.

“We’ve had those two signs up (announcing a new library) for, I think, 10 years,” he said.

Closing the gap

DiGiorgio pushed hard to boost minority enrollment, primarily among black students, who made up 9 percent of the student body in 1989.

He visited high schools across the state to promote Winthrop as a school that values diversity.

Winthrop recruiters continue to seek out minorities, visit majority black high schools and meet with community leaders.

“There were a lot of chicken dinners in mostly black churches,” DiGiorgio said.

Today, Winthrop is a school of more than 6,000 students, of whom 32 percent are minorities. About 27 percent are black.

A study by the Education Trust found that among public, four-year colleges – excluding historically black schools – Winthrop equally serves white and black students while graduating them at similar rates.

The group praised the school, saying Winthrop has closed the achievement gap where other schools haven’t.

In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation named Winthrop among 40 American campuses where minority students excel at “Beating the Odds.”

‘A steady hand’

DiGiorgio spent his final years managing a recession in which he responded to state budget cuts by sending employees on unpaid leave, eliminating courses and raising students’ tuition and fees to new highs.

Winthrop’s tuition for in-state students is second only to the Medical University of South Carolina.

DiGiorgio has defended the price as a badge of prestige.

“We are one of the few institutions to have 100 percent national accreditation for all academic programs for which that’s available,” he has said.

Also, costs in the Charlotte region are higher than elsewhere in the state, he said, and “we have more square footage of historic property to care for than most institutions.”

And without new money for construction, “tuition has had to be used to meet modern facilities needs.”

Colleagues on Tuesday praised his leadership.

He is among “the truly great presidents of Winthrop,” said Eddie Lee, York Mayor, Winthrop history professor and a third-generation Winthrop graduate.

When ranking all of Winthrop’s presidents, Lee said, “at the top would be D.B. Johnson and Anthony J. DiGiorgio.” Johnson moved Winthrop from Columbia, where it started, to Rock Hill.

“Dr. DiGiorgio’s major contribution has been transforming Winthrop College into Winthrop University,” Lee said. “He has a steady hand for steering the university through turbulent waters. That’s what he does.”

Jamie Self, Don Worthington and Amanda Phipps contributed.

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