Jim Clements began his tenure as Clemson president at the Orange Bowl in Miami. It was clear then, as he shook hands, liberally gave out hugs and chatted with alumni, students and fans, what his personal style would be — casual, friendly and people-centered. He might be wearing a tie, but you’ll rarely see him with his suit coat. He may be running a few minutes late, but that’s usually because he’s trying to respond to one more question or comment, or hear a concern. He looks people in the eye, he asks their names. He listens. And he quotes his mother. You have to trust a man who quotes his mother.
Not to say that he isn’t intense or focused. But he’s listening as he begins his time here. Ten p.m. to midnight, you’ll usually find him on his computer, trying to keep up with the hundreds of emails that occupy the box of email@example.com. “I’m running a few hundred behind right now, but I will get to them all,” he says.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with President Clements and ask a few questions.
Coming home to Clemson
What you need to know first about Beth Clements
CW: SO NOW THAT YOU’VE BEEN HERE A FEW MONTHS, WHAT ARE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF CLEMSON? WERE THERE ANY SURPRISES?
JC: It’s a great place made up of incredible people and a beautiful campus, with a top-notch, high-quality education. Those weren’t surprises; that’s what we expected. That’s the reputation Clemson has.
And the family piece is special. For me, family is everything. We fit the Clemson Family, and we’re thrilled about the environment that is very family-oriented. We’re getting settled in, and we are thrilled to be here.
CW: YOU HAVE A BACKGROUND IN COMPUTER SCIENCE AND OPERATIONS ANALYSIS. HOW HAS THAT PREPARED YOU FOR BEING A COLLEGE PRESIDENT?
JC: Computer science classes, operations analysis classes and engineering classes teach you how to think. And in this role you have to spend a lot of time analyzing situations, thinking about how you’re going to proceed, making decisions. It’s helped me. This is a technology-driven world, so for me to be on Twitter and to have students following me, all that stuff helps.
CW: ARE THERE ADVANTAGES OR DISADVANTAGES OF COMING FROM A HIGH-TECH BACKGROUND?
JC: I think there are wonderful leaders with all types of different backgrounds. When I was a kid, I could play football all day and be as happy as can be. Or I could sit around and do math problems all day and be equally happy. The technology has helped me in my role, and the project management has helped me to get projects done on time and on budget and to think about things strategically.
CW: WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LEADERSHIP?
JC: As a leader I try to surround myself with the best people I can — people who I can look into their eyes, know that they are good people, know that they can collaborate, know that they’re here to make a difference. It’s not about us, it’s about what we can do for others, so I try to surround myself with great people and get them to think big. In life we have a chance to make a difference. I want people who want to make a difference. One of the things that good leaders do is to surround themselves with people who are better, faster, smarter, stronger. You want to build an all-star team. We have the opportunity here to hire a couple of new people, and we will try to get the best people we can. We already have great people here, but any opportunity when we hire, we will hire great people.
CW: HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE DEMANDS ON YOU AS PRESIDENT, PROFESSOR, FATHER, HUSBAND, COMMUNITY MEMBER?
JC: Honestly, it’s not easy. In these kinds of roles, if you’re really in it to make a difference, and you really give it your all, you give a lot of yourself. I really don’t get a chance to go to the movies, and I don’t have time to watch TV. It’s always the University and family. That’s how I try to do it. I’m blessed to have a great wife, and I have great kids. They understand my role. I’ve been in these kinds of roles for a long time, and they understand the time that it takes. I try to balance the best I can, but honestly, it’s not easy because there are a lot of evening and weekend events. I try to get to all of the kids’ things when I can, and they’re great kids, and it’s all worked out. Beth plays a critical role in that, and she deserves a lot of credit.
CW: AND ONE OF YOUR DAUGHTERS IS NOW A CLEMSON TIGER, CORRECT?
JC: Yes. We have four kids. Tyler is 21, and he’s at West Virginia. We have identical twin girls, Hannah and Maggie. Hannah and Maggie were in the honors program at WVU; Hannah transferred here and is studying special education. Maggie stayed back in West Virginia because she has a horse, a dog and a boyfriend, and really likes it there. She is studying elementary education. Then our youngest daughter, Grace, is here. Grace is 13 and has special needs. She, we hope one day, will be in the ClemsonLIFE program. Grace is a very social person and loves to play sports, especially basketball.
CW: WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE CLEMSON IN FIVE YEARS? IN 10 YEARS?
JC: One of the things my mother taught me when I was a kid that I really appreciate — and she taught me a lot of important things — was to be a good listener. She said, “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so listen.” So I’m really trying to listen to what others think. I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’m spending time listening to faculty, staff and students, people on the campus and in the community. So it’s more what we view Clemson as being in five to 10 years than it is what I view Clemson as being in five to 10 years. I will say this: We’re on a great path. It’s a great University with a great national reputation, high-quality academics, low student-faculty ratios, and those are things we need to continue to push. We need to enhance our research profile. We need to hire some more good people and keep things moving, but I hope to learn a lot over the next days and weeks about where we go together. We have a great 2020 strategic plan, but it’s probably time to revisit that and make sure it still lines up with where we want to go. But again, it won’t be Jim’s strategic plan; it will be our strategic plan.
CW: THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO THINK THAT THE GROWTH IN ONLINE EDUCATION MEANS THAT IT WILL REPLACE PLACE-BASED EDUCATION IN THE FUTURE. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE FUTURE OF THE CAMPUS?
JC: It’s a great question, and nationally it’s a question that we’re all discussing in higher education.The ability for technology to enhance the educational process is clearly there; the technology is now probably where it needs to be. It’s being integrated into a lot of the curriculum, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. What we have to do is be a part of the discussion and not sit on the sidelines. We’re doing some really good things related to online education. But I don’t think the place-based educational format is going to go away. It’s just how you infuse technology and supplement what we’re already doing. So it’s not really an either/or: We’ll have place-based education, we’ll have technology-based education, and we’ll have integration of the two. And that’s what’s going to be exciting. The ability to reach more people with technology is important. So for access, affordability and outreach, technology becomes an important tool. Higher education has changed for decades and decades, and this is just the current stage that we’re in. But it will transform education in some ways.
CW: WHAT WOULD YOU IDENTIFY AS CLEMSON’S BIGGEST STRENGTH AS WELL AS OUR BIGGEST WEAKNESS AT THIS POINT?
JC: Great organizations are built on great people. This is a great University because we have great people; that’s the bottom line. Our greatest strength is based on the human capital that we have here. And what I have seen in my three months, we have really good people. They care, they want to make a difference, they are doing their best. They are overworked based on our level of resources, but they are making a difference.
What are our weaknesses? The one thing that jumps out at me is our facilities. We’ve got to improve our facilities. A third of our student housing is 25 years old, 25 percent of our student housing is 50 years old. We need some new facilities. We need new academic facilities. We need some new research facilities. We need some new athletic facilities. So there’s where we have an opportunity to improve.
CW: DO YOU SEE THE TOP-20 AS A CONTINUING GOAL FOR US? AND WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO TO ACHIEVE THAT?
JC: The top 20 is still a goal. It’s been a great goal. And I’ve tracked Clemson’s progress over a decade and a half over other institutions. We’ve made incredible steps forward to the top 20. We are currently sitting at number 21, tied with some great institutions. The top 20 are great universities. So yes, we are going to keep pushing, but that doesn’t mean at the expense of other things. We still need to push research. We still need to push facilities. We still need to do other things, but that will still be a goal. Getting there is not going to be easy, right? Moving from 38 where we were before, to 21 — not easy. It’s trying to figure the steps to move forward. And again, that’s a collaborative discussion that will be taking place on the campus.
CW: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE CLEMSON ALUMNI TO KNOW ABOUT YOU?
JC: I always want people to know me first as a person. So I always talk about my family. I always talk about my background. I always like to mention that I was a first-generation college student. I think it is important for people to know that my grandparents had a fourth-grade, a sixth-grade, an eighth-grade, and we think one had a twelfth-grade education, but we don’t have any real proof of that. One of my grandfathers was a coal miner and the other one was a firefighter.
What they tried to instill in me was hard work. Follow through on your word, be ethical, give it your all. But they also tried to instill in me, my two older sisters and older brother that education is the key. If you want a better life, here is your path. My parents didn’t go to college. They didn’t have that opportunity. My grandparents didn’t have that opportunity. So for me, I got in the business of higher ed to make a difference, ultimately, as a professor. When I was in second grade, my teacher used to call me “professor,” and, by the way, I always say that’s the best job in the world. It’s better than being a university president. Being a professor is what I love. I love to teach. I love to do research. I love to work with students. But, I just wanted to make a difference. Somehow I got into a leadership role. But one day I’ll go back to the classroom and teach and do research.
Between my two older sisters, older brother and me, we have 11 college degrees: four undergraduate degrees, five master’s, two Ph.Ds. My brother and I finished our Ph.Ds side by side on stage, which was one of the happiest days of my parents’ lives.
This has given me the opportunity for a better life. Let me help others have that same opportunity. Education is good for the individual but also for society. We want an educated society. That’s why I got into higher ed — I just wanted to make a difference.
I want people to know me as me, and then I want them to know about my family, my wife, who will be a great asset to the University and the community, and our four great kids. Those are things, I think from the personal side, that are important for people to know.