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October 2005
Historic on the Outside but High Tech on the Inside
By Ellison Clary

“A good university is a pervasively good university,” President Anthony J. (Tony) DiGiorgio often says in describing the institution he leads. These days, with Winthrop University widely acclaimed for performance, DiGiorgio can deliver his motto with a lilt.

The trustees of the Rock Hill school of 6,600 students affirmed his assessment in June. “Dr. DiGiorgio is charting a course for the university’s future that is fulfilling our goal of national distinction,” acclaimed Mary Jean Martin, trustees chair, in announcing a contract extension until 2011 for the 65-year-old DiGiorgio.

Winthrop has been cited by entities from U.S. News & World Report to the Princeton Review to the Consumers Digest Best Value Top 50 for its performance as a comprehensive, largely undergraduate institution with quality students, national caliber academic programs, award-winning student affairs programs, and top-level NCAA athletic programs.

For DiGiorgio, whose office ambience includes classic jazz playing softly in the background, that’s more than music to his ears. Making it all the more a triumph are the not-so-pleasant times that he has had to endure considerable dissonance. So much so, his detractors thought him tone-deaf.

 

Rough Beginnings

With 17 years at Winthrop to his credit, DiGiorgio is now the longest serving public university president in South Carolin. But three years into his tenure, some professors didn’t want to heed his baton. Disgruntled largely with spending priorities, the faculty voted “no confidence” in DiGiorgio.

The first-time president who had come from the College of New Jersey kept the support of the Winthrop trustees and rode out the discord. He believes he’s one of only three university presidents who have survived such a vote. He knows it was a turning point.

“That was a negative chapter with a silver lining,” recalls DiGiorgio. “I learned. I grew up as a president.”

From the edge of his desk chair, he continues. “Frankly, our institutional trajectory from that point has been nothing less than phenomenal. We have matured in our identity and we have national aspirations. We want to be known nationally as one of the best institutions of our kind.”

The son of a bricklayer father who emigrated from Sicily, DiGiorgio readily admits he’s introverted but knows he also is intuitive and has a knack for fitting details together. Good at vision, though, he was short on communication – at least early on.

When he accepted the position at Winthrop in 1989, he says, he found an historic campus with serious infrastructure problems and a paucity of financial resources. Fairly immediately he had a new electrical distribution system installed. “The capacity for chilling and heating our buildings had to be totally replaced,” he remembers.

To finance such projects DiGiorgio invested in development, strengthening the school’s efforts to bring in donations. Meanwhile, he pushed for accreditation of all academic programs while working with a faculty whose salaries, he admits, “were fairly low and not terribly competitive.” This was so even though tuition was rising, placing Winthrop among the Palmetto state’s most expensive campuses.

A faculty committee examined the administration’s priorities as well as the ways it was spending and put together a report that DiGiorgio still calls “very misleading.” At a meeting that included fewer than half the faculty, DiGiorgio recalls, about 75 percent of those present voted “no confidence.”

According to DiGiorgio, some didn’t understand the financial situation. “Money was limited. We didn’t think salary increases were the first priority, but that we could improve ourselves to the point where salary increases would be earned recognition of excellence. It just took a little time.”

DiGiorgio was massaging an annual budget of $65 million when he arrived, and has grown it into one that currently is $90 million. The necessary funding increases have come from higher tuition and more grants and gifts. Currently, state funds account for almost 22 percent of the school’s revenues, whereas in 1989 state funds were about half the budget.

 

Learning Better Communication

DiGiorgio is the first to admit that he needed to communicate better and more often. He set about explaining his priorities. “People will tell you now,” he smiles, “that I probably inundate them with information.”

Though his board stood by him, DiGiorgio acknowledges he had private conversations with individual trustees in which they and he agreed he should chart some corrections. Slowly, he quieted the crescendo of criticism. As academic quality grew, salaries got better. A few faculty movement leaders remain on campus and DiGiorgio says his relations with them are cordial.

He gives much credit to a younger faculty member who was on the edge of the upstir, Thomas Moore. Moore, at the time, was director of the master of liberal arts program, a position in which he could see both sides. He agrees that a dearth of communication exacerbated the situation.

Now 50, Moore is vice president for academic affairs with an office near DiGiorgio’s. At the time, he says, he wondered how people motivated by the best interests of the university could have such different perspectives on its leadership. He and DiGiorgio worked hard to foster two-way communication, he adds.

“Out of that communication came a realization that institutional best interest was the motivating factor for both groups, and a level of trust began to develop,” he says. “It started out more individual than broad, but our communication increased that, and Tony’s leadership proved we were both right.”

DiGiorgio maintains that history played a large part in the situation in which he found himself. Founded in 1886, Winthrop was the first institution in South Carolina where women could get a post-secondary education. For decades, it churned out teachers and home economists. But by the 1970s, most women weren’t enrolling in single-sex institutions and financial necessity forced Winthrop to become co-educational.

According to DiGiorgio, “Winthrop was rather ill-prepared to make the transition. The rest of the ’70s were a struggle to find a new identity. When I came in 1989, I was the seventh person in the president’s chair in the ’80s. There was no consistency and no sense of common purpose.”

DiGiorgio was a native of Sharon, Pa., with degrees from Gannon College and Purdue University, where he had taught. He had been vice president for academic affairs at The College of New Jersey; his wife Gale had been dean of students at a nearby college. As a native of Kentucky, she helped him adapt to South Carolina mores.

With trustee support, DiGiorgio says, he set about achieving overall improvement at Winthrop that included his early attention to infrastructure, funding and boosting academic faculty. He also concentrated on academics.

“We said every one of our academic programs for which there is a national accreditation will be accredited or we’re not going to have the program. We said by year 2000 we will make that happen.” DiGiorgio smiles, then adds, “We did it by 1996.”

Winthrop enjoys 100 percent accreditation for its 37 undergraduate and 25 graduate degree programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business Administration, The Richard W. Riley College of Education and the College of Visual and Performing Arts. DiGiorgio now characterizes Winthrop as a “first-rate, national caliber contemporary institution.”

 

A Vision of Distinction

To get there, DiGiorgio implemented a six-point “Vision of Distinction” that has guided development for most of his 17 years. It commits the university to policies that will develop student leadership, nurture growth, encourage a search for truth, embrace diversity and inspire pride in an historic campus.

Prospective students noticed the improvements. Average Student Achievement Test (SAT) scores for incoming freshmen improved about 50 percent, from the 800s to 1,100.

From the prior enrollment figure of 5,000 that DiGiorgio inherited, enrollment has grown to 6,600, about 5,200 of whom are undergraduates. Faculty has increased from 250 to 300 and administration and staff has nearly doubled to approximately 1,000. Women students still outnumber men by a two to one margin. About 25 percent of all students are African-American.

DiGiorgio says he never espoused rapid growth. Instead, he sought quality. To illustrate success, he reels off a list of accomplishments.

He’s proud the school has kept the look and feel of its historic campus. The infrastructure improvements have helped preserve the neo-Georgian buildings that dot Winthrop’s 425-acre campus. The central campus is one of Rock Hill’s five historic districts and several buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The structures that have been added maintain harmony. “Everything new that we’ve built looks like it’s been here for 100 years,” DiGiorgio says proudly. Evidence that appearance will not be altered lies in architect’s renderings that lean against the president’s office wall. Besides classroom buildings, they include a 137,000-square-foot health, wellness and physical education facility and a $25 million campus center, all of which emphasize traditional lines.

DiGiorgio also takes pride in technology improvements. The school boasts state-of-the-art distance learning facilities. There is high-speed Internet access from campus buildings and residence halls to a campus-wide local area network and this provides access to the library’s online catalogue of 560,000 books. Select locations feature wireless Internet access.

“Frankly, we are one of the more technologically sophisticated institutions of our kind in the country,” says DiGiorgio, who likes to repeat the assessment of a 2004 entering freshman. “She said, ‘I was after the antique look on the outside and high tech on the inside.’ That’s why she came here.”

DiGiorgio doesn’t overlook athletics. Winthrop is a charter member of the Big South Conference and competes in NCAA Division I sports. The Eagles field teams in women’s and men’s basketball, tennis, golf, indoor/outdoor track, cross-country and soccer. Additionally, there’s a men’s baseball team and women wear the garnet and gold school colors in softball and volleyball.

“I’m very pleased with our progress in athletics,” DiGiorgio says. “We’ve done it the right way and done it slowly. For the second year in a row, the South Carolina women’s scholar athlete of the year is from Winthrop.”

Finally, DiGiorgio lists Winthrop’s growing importance in the community. The school has reversed a long-time status of remaining insular.

“We are now an integral part of the community of Rock Hill,” he beams. The university is cooperating with the city’s economic development personnel in planning a “textile corridor” between the campus and downtown to be put in place in the next 10 years.

That trajectory brings DiGiorgio back to his overall mission: building a pervasively good university. Though his two daughters have made him the grandfather of three, retirement isn’t foremost in his mind.

“The visioning thing is real for me,” he says. “It’s something I do everyday. I will finish my career at Winthrop. I still see challenges in the next five or six years.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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