- Associated Press - Monday, September 24, 2018

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - President Jim Rankin didn’t drive his motorcycle to work one recent morning due to rain, but he’s otherwise settled into his new role as president of a college in western South Dakota.

“It’s always fun to come back,” said Rankin, a native of Draper and Ft. Pierre and ‘78 South Dakota School of Mines and Technology alum, “I’m amazed at how many connections you have that you don’t think about.”

A cousin bumped into him at dinner. Another old friend passed through Rapid City and called to say ‘hello’ and wish him luck. For the former electrical engineering major entering his first full academic year as president of SDSMT, President Rankin finally felt at home when he and his wife took in the beanie hat ceremony.

“You wonder if the students are still engaged like they were (in my days),” Rankin said. “But they crowded around the stage and sang the Hardrockers’ fight song.”

Traditions remain strong for Rankin, but the college he inherited in January from former president and current U.S. Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, has its focus trained on the future. From the partnership with the Sanford Underground Research Facility deep below the mountains of Lead to sustaining contributions from international students, Rankin sees his mission broadly as he starts his first full year at the helm.

Inspired by a former mentor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he served as Vice Provost for Research and Economic Development, Rankin said one of the first things he did when starting the new job was to meet with faculty in each of the departments to find out their needs.

“I wanted to get a feel for what was going on and tried to take the same approach on our strategic plan,” he told the Rapid City Journal .

The next step was to meet with faculty and students completing research in the field.

“They never know when I’m going to pop up,” said Rankin. In spring, the new president went up to what he calls the “4850 level” of the Sanford Underground Research Facility in the former Lead gold mine where many experiments are being undertaken.

One research breakthrough the university has touted recently directly ties to the old Homestake mine. Researchers in the Composite and Nanocomposite Advanced Manufacturing - Bio Materials Center wrapped graphite sheets around microbes found 5,000 feet underground in the laboratory to conduct electricity, a “novel solution” according to a university release. The findings could lead to better treatment for solid waste on NASA missions or the generation of electricity by wastewater treatment plants.

Rankin admitted the in-depth science in fields unfamiliar to him can sometimes go over his head, but he nevertheless relishes in supporting faculty and students in their endeavors.

“We’ve got this Science Cafe and one night we talked about whether some of the artifacts down at the Red Cloud Museum were real or had been faked,” said Rankin. “It was a fascinating evening. And being a registered professional engineer, I’ll sometimes come up to them after the seminars and ask them to sign this piece of paper to show I was there.”

Rankin believes this focus on research complements a faculty member’s teaching duties.

“If you’re doing research as a faculty member, you’re bringing that learning back into the undergraduate classroom. It also brings more graduate students.”

Numbers from the South Dakota Board of Regents shows that in the Fall of 2017, Mines’ enrollment hovered at 2,778, making it the smallest public college in the state. But the school’s $15 million in grant-funded research (Rankin said he wants to raise this by an additional $5 million) stands out among the state’s institutions of higher learning.

And Rankin wants to continue to grow on this strong academic tradition.

“We have a core expertise in engineering and science,” said Rankin. “But are there things related to that that would make sense? If you talk to some of our alums, they wish they had a few more business courses. We probably won’t start our own business school, but how do we team with BHSU (Black Hills State University) or USD (University of South Dakota) to offer those kinds of experiences?”

He also has looked to the school’s support services to develop a sense of home for students.

“If you come here from a small town, this (Rapid City) can be overwhelming,” said Rankin. “But 70 percent of our students come from a small town.” Rankin mentioned the Student Success Center and new campus activities, including the establishment of the new esports program in the athletic department as providing community on campus.

But he believes further fostering ties between Rapid City and the college is a needed step for the school.

“We have a presence in the town, but we really need to find a connection,” said Rankin. “If you stopped and asked somebody on the street, ‘What is it that they do at the School of Mines,’ I’m not sure what kind of answers we’d get.”

Rankin mentioned football games, the Apex Art Gallery and the Museum of Geology as avenues for drawing people on campus. But he believes more deliberately can be done in town.

“On the freshman day of service, they went out with food baskets and cleaned,” said Rankin. “But we need to make sure they’re wearing a sweatshirt that says School of Mines.”

He pointed to Mines-born ideas, such as VRC Metal Systems, which creates a cold spray technology that, among other uses, is applied to fix bodies of bombers stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, that have come out of the Ascent Innovation Center as evidence of entrepreneurship active at the college.

This summer, Mines also announced Ascent will open up a downtown campus.

“It’ll be great for economic development, and it just strengthens that connection between the School of Mines and downtown.”

He also hypothesized about a trolley system that could connect Main Street and St. Joseph.

But, ultimately, the bread-and-butter for Mines, Rankin said, will be the highly skilled graduates it produces. The president recalled the early days of his career, working as an engineer for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“I think of my graduating double-e class about 30 people went to Rockwell that year,” he said. “I think you find that a lot of our employers know what they get with our students.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com


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