The Last Lecture

‘President Barker was the keynote speaker at the Victor Hurst Academic Convocation on August 20, marking the beginning of the 121st academic year. This is an excerpt from his remarks.’

This morning, I will attempt to answer the question:
“If this was your ‘last lecture’ what would you say?” I’ll use this time to share with you some of what I’ve learned over the past 14 years about how my idea of Clemson has continued — and will continue — to evolve. Then I’ll try to say something useful to those of you who will help write the next chapter in Clemson history.

 

First, I’ve come to understand that Clemson must pay special attention to our relationship to both change and tradition.

Clemson exists explicitly to be an agent of change. After all, what was Thomas Green Clemson’s great cry? “Our country is wretched in the extreme,” he wrote. Our economy is struggling. Our people are struggling. And something needs to change. We need education and research to solve problems, to bring prosperity. Clemson must deliver this much-needed transformation.

So, a commitment to bold, even radical change is a true Clemson tradition.

Going forward, Clemson must take care not to embrace a false sense of tradition — the one that leads to protectionism and resistance to change masquerading as some proud commitment to the past. But Clemson must embrace its covenant with — and tradition of — change. Finding the proper balance becomes ever more important.

The ability to “dance with uncertainty” will be a fundamental quality needed in Clemson University’s next president.

Second, I’ve learned the truth of something Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once said: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Clemson has a well-deserved reputation for doing effective, meaningful planning. But the true value in any planning is not the document you produce at the end of the process. A plan is merely a tool to inspire good, clear thinking about the future.

In the end, sound thinking yields strategic behaviors that persist long past the discard date for the plans themselves. We describe these behaviors with words like honest … brave … resourceful … nimble.

The Clemson 2020 Plan must be carried forward and implemented with honesty, resourcefulness, courage and … never forget … adaptability and flexibility.

Third, I’ve learned that the world truly needs its educational institutions to be incubators of creativity.

All children are naturally curious and creative. Too often, our educational system is guilty of drumming the creativity out of them instead of helping them to nourish it and channel it in constructive ways. Creativity — where good ideas come from — is a special interest of mine. My soon-to-be department chair, Kate Schwennsen, has asked me to prepare a course on “Creativity and Leadership,” and I hope to do so.

There is a proper emphasis here on equipping our students with the skills of math, science and technology. But if you ask business leaders — and I have done this — “What do you value most in prospective employees?” They will answer: “People with skills who are also creative thinkers and problem-solvers.”

Finally, I’ve learned in the most personal sort of way that leadership is service. It is the opposite of self-advancement or resume building. In fact, people who claim for themselves the mantle of leader are often not the ones whom other people want to follow.

Clearly, I felt called to this service out of my deep affection for this place — Clemson.

Your next president will likely be answering a different call. The love of learning … or a passion for making sure venerable 19th century institutions can remain viable and sustainable in the age of digital, mobile technology. The kind of chief executive Clemson needs tomorrow is different from the kind we needed in 1999 — after five presidents in 15 years.

I’ve always thought that leading a university is more like conducting a symphony orchestra or jazz band … one in which each individual player is a skilled, talented and creative star in his or her own right.

But I know that it is you — the faculty, staff, students and alumni of Clemson— who work in harmony to turn the noise into music. And what a beautiful song it has been for us for 14 years. Today, Marcia and I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude at being given the responsibility and the opportunity to serve, with all of you, in protecting and advancing this noble idea of Clemson.

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