The University of South Carolina appoints very few professors of practice. The specialized position is designed for individuals who can teach from exceptional professional expertise, and the bar is set very high.
Tom Mullikin, the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management’s newest professor of practice, clears that bar with ease.
Mullikin, a two-time alumnus of the university, comes home to teach tourism management after building an incredibly distinguished career in academia, law, diplomacy and military service. He has earned awards including the Order of the Palmetto (the highest civilian honor bestowed by the state of South Carolina), the U.S. Army Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Global War on Terror Service Medal and many more, but one of his greatest points of pride is his home state.
“I’m a Gamecock through and through,” Mullikin says. “I’ve spent a lot of my adult life traveling around the world, but I’m always happy and proud to come back to South Carolina, where we really have one of the most diverse, beautiful landscapes in the world.”
Mullikin is a Camden, South Carolina native and a respected ecotourism expert, researcher, author and advocate. As a senior environmental attorney, he has represented clients including the United Nations, foreign countries and numerous Fortune 100 companies. He is also an accomplished expedition leader who has summited peaks on every continent, logged certified SCUBA dives in every ocean and was the 2020 Expedition Leader of the Year for the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor.
Among his many leadership roles in the Palmetto State, Mullikin is a board member of the South Carolina Aquarium and the Carolina Cup Racing Association. He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia International University; he is a research professor at Coastal Carolina University and a visiting professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito’s Galapagos campus in addition to his position at South Carolina.
“This was a chance to come back, be a part of the Carolina family and also teach about ecotourism, which is something that I've done a lot over the years,” he says.
Mullikin’s role as professor of practice is based in South Carolina’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, which is part of the College of HRSM and recognized as the No. 1 program in the Southeastern Conference for hospitality and tourism management.
“Tom has a dynamic and vast range of experience, and we are thrilled to have him sharing his knowledge with the next generation of hospitality and tourism management professionals here at the University of South Carolina,” says College of HRSM Interim Dean David Cárdenas. “Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are critical components of our degree program that are near to my heart and recruiting Tom to our faculty helps ensure that our graduates are prepared to address the biggest needs and opportunities facing tourism in South Carolina and across the world.”
Cárdenas and Mullikin share a strong belief in the increasing importance of ecotourism.
“It's an interesting confluence of a very large sector of the economy, tourism, with a growing interest and concern with what's going on with the environment,” Mullikin says. “We’ve come to this subject historically through more of a hospitality lens, and now we're building the environmental piece of it that will allow people to come out and enjoy, appreciate, but also learn how they can be better stewards of the world.”
Getting students out to enjoy and appreciate ecotourism through experiential learning is part of Mullikin’s teaching philosophy and a key component of the College of HRSM’s curriculum. Mullikin has already taught South Carolina students participating in study abroad courses in the Galapagos Islands and is planning other travel-based courses such as one focusing on ecotourism in Alaska.
He is also leading the open to the public South Carolina 7 expedition this summer, a first-of-its-kind hiking and camping journey along the Palmetto Trail that will highlight seven unique geographical wonders of the South Carolina.
“It has been my experience that when you teach people about the environment in the environment, they're much more passionate,” he says.
Mullikin is the current chair of the South Carolina Floodwater Commission, chair of environmental nonprofit Global Eco Adventures and executive director of the GAIS Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands.
He has worked alongside many political leaders on policy to support sustainable tourism and emphasizes that conservation is a bipartisan issue.
“I don't care what your politics are. I’ve seen some of the most conservative and some of the most liberal people come together on trips that I lead,” he says. “The environment is not a political issue once you get people out there away from the vitriol. It’s important on so many levels.”
Mullikin also rejects the notion that protecting the environment is bad for businesses.
“People have long advanced this idea that you can have either economic or environmental sustainability. The truth is if you don't have one, you don't have the other, because it isn't sustainable. You can't destroy what's around you,” he says, pointing out that tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world as well as South Carolina’s largest industry. “What we have done in South Carolina is demonstrate that we will have a very strong economy and also have the most preserved ecology in the world.”
Mullikin believes that students can not only learn to make the world a better place through ecotourism, but they can also build great careers. The desire to help students is what led him to join the South Carolina faculty.
“That's the most fun for me at this point in my life, in my career. I don't want a title. I don't want a post. I just want to teach. I was in the military for a long time. I've been in corporations. I've built a big law practice out of Charlotte. I came to South Carolina wanting to return to my roots, where I've had unbelievable opportunities starting right here 40 years ago. I want to inspire young people to go out and do great things.”