USC Sumter dean named

Posted on: 1/17/2014; Updated on: 2/7/2014
By Peggy Binette, 803-777-7704

Michael Sonntag has been named dean of the University of South Carolina Sumter, bringing nearly 20 years of higher education experience that includes serving as chief academic officer at the University of Maine at Presque Isle since 2007.

 His appointment was announced Friday (Jan. 17) by Palmetto College Chancellor Susan Elkins, who says it was Sonntag’s academic leadership coupled with his demonstrated successes in campus and community relations that led to his selection.

“Dr. Sonntag has a vision of leading USC Sumter to greater heights, building on past successes while also initiating creative and innovative efforts,” Elkins says. “His many successes at both UMPI and Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., emphasize his leadership strengths in faculty and campus relations, accountability, strategic planning, external relationship building and securing resources. His inclusive and open leadership style will be a strong asset for the campus and community. We are delighted to have him as a member of the Palmetto College leadership team, providing leadership for USC Sumter.”

Palmetto College comprises the university’s four regional campuses at Lancaster, Salkehatchie, Union and Sumter as well as online bachelor’s degree programs.

Elkins says she will work with Sonntag to ensure the success of Palmetto College in meeting the state’s education needs.

“An educated workforce is essential to having a strong economy in South Carolina. Palmetto College is working to expand access to higher education to the state’s citizens, and USC Sumter is playing a vital role in realizing that mission in Sumter and the surrounding region,” Elkins says. “I look forward to working with Dr. Sonntag as he continues to enhance the USC Sumter student experience and the quality of its associate degree programs, as well as in making online programs for earning a bachelor’s degree an accessible and affordable option for Sumter area students.”

Sonntag, 46, says it was Palmetto College’s access mission and community focus that attracted him to the USC Sumter dean’s position.

“As a first-generation or ‘first-in-family’ college student, I am attracted to the access mission of regional campuses. The fact that USC Sumter focuses on serving the constituents of a particular area – literally ‘meeting them where they are’ – is very appealing to me,” Sonntag says. “I cannot think of a more enriching, more empowering and more liberating force than higher education. To be able to come together with a community to see that mission fulfilled is powerful. I want to be part of something like that.”

Sonntag started his academic career wanting to teach and conduct research in children’s cognitive development. Within a few years of joining Lander’s faculty in 1996, he was tapped for key leadership positions, serving as the university’s director of assessment and planning and as chairman of the psychology department. He also served as president of the South Carolina Psychological Association in 2006-2007 before being named vice president for academic affairs at UMPI.

While as UMPI’s vice president for academic affairs, he served as the acting executive director at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, a magnet high school for academically gifted students, in 2010. He says the experience deepened his appreciation for and importance of working with external constituents, a governing board, and legislators and state government.

Sonntag says it was working as provost alongside two UMPI presidents whom he calls “phenomenal mentors” that inspired him to want to lead a campus himself.

He credits former UMPI President Don Zillman with fostering an importance of community connections, recognizing faculty and staff, experiencing the fun of watching students get involved in the institution and developing the skills needed to work within a system of institutions. He says Linda Schott, current UMPI president, has shown him how to make the transition to a new institution and a new position of responsibility.

“I will bring those lessons learned with me to USC Sumter,” says Sonntag whose enthusiasm for leading USC Sumter isn’t in short supply.

“I’m really jazzed about USC Sumter’s clear commitment to serving the region through an on-ground presence, coupled with the creative solution of providing four year degrees via distance solutions,” he says. “I really like that USC is taking a proactive step to fill the four-year degree gap that exists for place-bound students in South Carolina, while also proactively dealing with the financial challenges that remain a reality in higher education.”

A native of Sheridan, Texas, Sonntag earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Baylor University, a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctoral degree in experimental psychology, with an emphasis in developmental psychology, from the University of Arkansas.

While he has grown accustomed to the cold of northern Maine and confesses a love for its cool summers, Sonntag says he misses South Carolina’s weather and food and he, his wife and two children are ready to make the Palmetto State their home once again.

“It will be tough adjusting back to the heat and humidity, but I miss the long gardening season. I’m excited about being back where I can grow tomatoes and okra,” he says.

Sonntag will become dean Feb. 1.

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