Donald Russell: A Life of Public Service

Presented by the South Caroliniana Library

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University of South Carolina President

USC President's House
The President's House at
the University of South Carolina.

After the war, Russell returned to Spartanburg to practice law. He renewed his association with the University of South Carolina in 1947 when he was elected to the institution's board of trustees. His service on the board demonstrated the vision, political acumen, and clear thinking that the University needed in its president, and Russell was tapped for that office in 1951. Historian Dan Hollis calls Russell "the right president at the right time….The Russell era…gave Carolina confidence, momentum, and style."

 

Portrait unveiling at Russell House
Unveiling ceremony for the
Donald and Virginia Russell
portraits at the Russell House.

Russell was a popular and generous president, serving from 1952 to 1957. He refused to accept a salary, personally funded several scholarships, and paid for the renovation that transformed a former faculty duplex on the Horseshoe into today's President's House. A modern student union, named the Russell House in honor of both President Russell and his equally popular wife Virginia, was completed in 1955. He was also instrumental in obtaining legislation permitting state universities to issue tuition and dormitory-revenue bonds to finance permanent improvements.

Russell set about strengthening the University's academic side by revising the curriculum of the School of Engineering, reorganizing the School of Education, creating a strong physics department, and establishing doctoral programs in biology, chemistry, and other fields. The University also adopted an entrance examination, apparently the first Southern state university to do so. In his final year at Carolina, Russell oversaw the establishment of the first USC regional campus in Florence (now Francis Marion University).

Russell with JFK
Donald Russell with
John F. Kennedy
before the 1957
USC commencement.

His experience in the U.S. State Department and the growing tensions of the Cold War convinced him to emphasize the study of international problems and foreign policy. He instigated the creation of the international studies program at the University, bringing in Yale professor Richard L. Walker, a specialist on communist China, to establish the program. Russell continued to emphasize international exposure for Carolina's students by introducing an unprecedented program of visiting scholars and lecturers from around the world. Russell also brought in top figures from the U.S. political, military, and foreign policy establishment, including a young rising star in the Democratic Party who gave the 1957 commencement address – Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Russell resigned from the University in 1957 to run for governor, but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Ernest F. Hollings.

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