Remembering the Days — A man for all seasons: the Tom Jones presidency

Remembering the Days podcast — episode 45

Tom Jones was one of the university's longest serving presidents, and during his 12 years at the helm — 1962-74 — the university added scores of buildings and thousands of students. Significantly, Jones helped transform South Carolina into a modern research university and brought a spirit of innovation to its instructional mission.


The year was 1962 and the University of South Carolina was still a sleepy campus with just a few thousand students. Student life back then mostly revolved around the historic Horseshoe, the 19th century birthplace of the institution.

But the world outside campus was changing fast, and the university’s trustees didn’t want South Carolina to get left behind. They wanted a new president who would energize the university and take it to the fabled next level.

They selected a man named Tom Jones, an engineering dean from Purdue University, and over the course of the next 12 years, President Jones would engineer a dramatic transformation of the University of South Carolina, the effects of which are still seen and felt to this day.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at one of the most dynamic leaders in the university’s history, the 23rd president of the institution who led Carolina from 1962 to 1974.

Let me give you a quick snapshot of what the university was like when Tom Jones arrived.

For starters, there were 6,700 undergraduates here in 1962. Thanks to the post-World War II Baby Boom, the university’s enrollment would skyrocket to nearly 23,000 by 1974, the last year of Jones’ presidency. During that 12-year period, the university would construct or acquire 59 buildings and expand its campus southward, eastward and westward. Capstone House, the Carolina Coliseum, the Humanities buildings, the nursing building and many more facilities were added during Jones' time. For a while, Carolina became known as the empire where the concrete never sets.

After years of legal wrangling that had played out at other colleges across the South, the University of South Carolina desegregated in 1963, the year after Jones’ arrival, and finally became the state’s flagship university for all citizens.

On top of all those things happening on campus, American society itself was changing. The bobby socks and buttoned-down collars of the early 1960s would give way to a tie-dyed counter culture in the late ‘60s and early 1970s. The inevitable clash of old and new would precipitate major unrest on campus.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When Jones arrived in 1962, turning South Carolina into a modern research university was his No. 1 job, and he was up to the task.

Jones talked with professors and administrators across campus and singled out four academic departments — English, physics, chemistry and history — for special attention. Those departments were already pretty good. Jones wanted to make them great.

Don Greiner was one of the rising young star professors recruited to the university back then. Greiner remembers that one of his peers had already joined the faculty at Carolina, attracted by President Jones’ bold plans for improving the university, and he gave Greiner the hard sell about coming here, too.

Don Greiner: “I still remember, he said, 'You'll be making a mistake if you don't at least apply here.' And I started asking for reasons. And the reason, the first reason, or the one that I recall was the first was that there was a president here who was new and that he, the president, had selected four departments for, shall I say, extraordinary support in terms of hiring at both the full professor level and the beginning assistant professor level.”

Greiner had already applied for positions in English departments around the country and several colleges and universities wanted to hire him. But he took his friend’s advice, applied to South Carolina and started teaching in 1967. It turned out that Greiner’s friend was correct. The new president, Tom Jones, was making things happen by actively recruiting a wave of new faculty members who were not only great teachers but also great researchers and productive scholars.

Don Greiner: “I mean, it was exciting because Dr. Jones was behind all of this. Obviously, the dean and the provost are involved, but the money is coming from Dr. Jones's budget. And the hiring continued. I mean, Dr. Bruccoli comes in, James Dickey comes in, the huge names, obviously, and it may have been a budget issue, but when Dr. Jones left, that kind of hiring did not continue at that level.”

Many of those new professors would remain at Carolina for decades, raising the bar for academic and research excellence long after Jones came and went. More than 50 years later, Don Greiner, for example, is still here continuing his scholarly writing.

Another professor recruited during Tom Jones’ presidency continues to conduct research in physics. Frank Avignone arrived in 1965 and remembers President Jones’ personal style of engaging with nearly everyone he met.

Frank Avignone:  “He had this big smile. And he was friendly. And he would stop people on the street. And, I mean, he had a Cadillac, and he was driving around the campus. And if he recognized somebody, he would stop and ask him how they were doing. So he got out and about.”

That image of Tom Jones, a busy guy getting out of his office and mingling with students and professors, gives you some idea of the kind of university president he was.

I talked with Tom Jones’ daughter who grew up in the President’s House on the Horseshoe. You might remember a story I told about Cissie in a previous episode about former families in the President’s House — she was the one who had a pet blue jay, a pet squirrel and lots of dogs. Cissie Jones Snow remembers her dad as being a great listener, a trait that no doubt helped him as Carolina’s president to understand some of the complex challenges the university was dealing with.

Cissie Jones Snow: “He was a great listener. That's always stuck with me. Did he have something in his head that he wanted to say, yes, but he knew it was more important to listen.

“In my own personal life, I've been a behaviorist, I like to observe people. And he probably taught me the power of observation because he would, as soon as he kicked back, he was in deep thought about what this person was saying and the value of it and the moral value of what was being said. And he was weighing everything.”

Of course, along with a lot of listening, Tom Jones did a lot of talking, too. He had so many plates spinning in the air at once — a major expansion of campus with scores of new buildings, a phenomenal enrollment increase and on top of that, dealing with the things that people outside the university really cared about like new coaches for football, basketball and baseball. You might have heard of the coaches named Paul Dietzel, Frank McGuire and Bobby Richardson — all of them were hired during Jones’ presidency. And Jones himself was the face of the university and its voice.

Cissie Jones Snow: "He was very deliberate in his delivery. So every word counted. He didn't just talk. He had something to say. And in his transference of his information to you, he knew how to pick words that would get your attention. It wasn't blather. It was meaningful. And I think again, that was how he appealed to people of a higher intellect because he could speak their speak. But he could also speak the language of people who might not know the big words but would communicate in other ways."

Tom Jones was selling a vision of a bigger and better university, a university with more research funding, more graduate programs, more professors with stronger scholarly achievements. And it wasn’t just talk; Tom Jones made it happen.

The number of faculty members with doctoral degrees increased by one-third during his 12-year tenure. External research funding grew from $1 million in 1965 to $4.5 million in 1969. That built the foundation for today’s research enterprise at the university, which now annually brings in more than $225 million. Several master’s and Ph.D. programs were added across the university, and an honors program was launched in 1965, the precursor to today’s acclaimed Honors College. The university also established its African American Studies Program along with Women’s Studies during that time.

But behind all of this phenomenal progress that the university was making, there was a backdrop of unrest. In previous episodes we’ve talked about the blowback from the surrounding communities when the university expanded its campus in the 1960s and ‘70s. And we’ve talked about how the university’s rapid enrollment increase brought about a student body that was beginning to feel disconnected with the university itself. When you think about the protests to the Vietnam War and the rise of illegal drug use and a more bold questioning of authority by young people back then, those were the ingredients for a perfect storm that erupted in a major riot on campus in May 1970. You can learn more about that event in the episode called Month of May 1970.

Tom Jones was a smart, quick-thinking guy. Even as the haze of tear gas was still hanging over the campus after that riot, Jones was thinking about how the university had to change and adapt to win back the trust of its students. He pushed for more innovative teaching, and the Ford Foundation provided funding for University Without Walls and Contemporary University, two programs that allowed students to more or less design their own degree programs. Those initiatives eventually fizzled out, but the University 101 program, conceived and created in 1972, became a national model for helping freshmen learn the ropes of college life. U101 still wins national recognition for South Carolina every year.

It’s been said that Tom Jones arrived at South Carolina as an electrical engineer, but the 1960s changed him into a social engineer. He saw the disaffection of students at a campus that had grown by leaps and bounds during his tenure, and he figured out ways to reconnect with them. He had led the university to a promised land of bigger and better, then managed to figure out how to troubleshoot some of the problems that emerged as a result of that rapid growth.

Unfortunately, the pendulum of change had perhaps swung too far and too fast. Some powerful figures in state government thought that Jones was not firmly enough in control of the university, that students had been given too much latitude. Jones himself said at the time, “Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” Early in 1974, he resigned as university president. His daughter Cissy remembers.

Cissie Jones Snow: "He was very, very sad because he had built a lot there at the university and had a lot in the game, so to speak, and to leave under those circumstances devastated him. Did he talk about it? No, he was private about things like that, but I knew it affected him and I knew that, you know, he was just sad about having to leave."

Jones had earned his advanced degrees at MIT, and he returned there to become that institution’s vice president for research. In 1980, the University of South Carolina honored him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and praised him for having "brought Carolina into the mainstream of educational innovation and development." A year later, Jones passed away at the age of 65.

But the story doesn’t end there. Earlier in this episode, I introduced you to Frank Avignone, the physics professor who was recruited here in 1965 during Jones’ presidency and who continues to conduct research in particle astrophysics. During the 1960s, it came to President Jones’ attention that Avignone’s research would be greatly enhanced with an electron spectrometer, an expensive instrument made in Sweden for physics research.

Frank Avignone: "The president bought it for me out of presidential funds from Stockholm, and a Swede came over and set it up. I did those experiments in nuclear spectroscopy for about eight years, and then it became passé. So the spectrometer was carefully put down in our storage space here, and two years ago a new idea came to my head. It needs a beta spectrometer of the type that I had back in the '60s and '70s. And I brought it up and I'm working with it right now and I'm going to paint on it: 'Tom Jones Benevolent Spectrometer.' "

So there you have it. Nearly 50 years after Tom Jones’ presidency came to an end, the ripples from his efforts here to improve research and teaching are still making an impact. By the way, the building where Avignone does his research is named the Jones Physical Sciences Center, in honor of the man who forever changed Carolina all those years ago.

That’s all for this episode. On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going to take you out to the ball game with a look back at the legendary Sarge Frye, the man who tended Carolina’s athletic fields, including the baseball park named in his honor. 

I’m Chris Horn, thanks for listening and forever to thee.  

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