This spring, Clemson World sat down with President James Barker to get his perspective as he prepares to step down from the presidency and back into the classroom.
CW: What was your first priority as Clemson’s president?
BARKER: The way I always respond to that question is the same, and that is, my first priority is our students. But that’s a set of people and really the reason for our existence, and it’s a reminder to all of us on the campus what role our students really play.
If I think back to that moment, there were two things. We needed some stability here. I had lived through five presidents in 15 years, and each of those changes was so disruptive that it was hard to have any momentum built, because you were constantly changing the strategic plans. So I reasoned that if I would commit to stay at least 10 years, then that would be a symbol about stability. The other was that some fractures were starting to get a little bit wider, and I was concerned about keeping the Clemson Family united and unified. So the idea of One Clemson emerged early on. And nobody is as strong as Clemson when we are united.
CW: In your inauguration speech you noted that Clemson is “a living organism with a core and surface,” the core having a covenant with tradition and the surface having a covenant with change. How have you balanced tradition and change in your leadership?
BARKER: This place has a special genius, a collective genius, about understanding that balance. Otherwise, we could not have experienced the degree of change that we did in the ’50s and ’60s when we went from an all-male and all-white military school, to the Clemson you see today, with students from 90 different countries, with 50 percent women. That would have torn many schools apart, and that did not happen to Clemson.
There’s this almost innate understanding about when it’s time to hold on to traditions tightly and when to let go and make sure that change is what dominates our thinking. All I really tried to do was not mess that up too badly — to just pay attention to that history and say, “We’re now in one of those times again, and it’s time for this amount of change or this amount of tradition to rise.”
In that quote, I was really challenging each of us to engage in that change-versus-tradition discussion — let it not be an abstract idea, but a very real idea on how we solve problems, how we build strategic plans, how we deal with the future. That dialogue about change and traditions served us very well. You can go back to the ultimate source of tradition, which is Thomas Green Clemson’s will, and he doesn’t make it very clear about how this is to be done. He saw it as a dynamic thing; he understood the need for change.
You can’t say in the 19th century what the 21st century’s going to be, or in the 21st century what the 23rd century Clemson should look like. We take seriously our roots as an ag school and an engineering mechanical school. But that doesn’t stop us from working with BMW, and that doesn’t stop us from doing wind energy. What will it take to bring prosperity to South Carolina in whatever century we’re in — that’s our charge from Thomas Green Clemson.
CW: You didn’t begin your presidency timidly. The top 20 goal was a bold reach. What motivated you to choose that?
BARKER: I’ve said jokingly that I wish I’d said top 25. That would have been very easy to do. Everybody thought that was ridiculous, because it seemed like a stretch too far. But when I think about the distinctive qualities of Clemson, it is clear that we are very competitive by nature. I challenged that competitive nature to say, “We can be top 20 in sports, and there’s no reason we can’t be top 20 in academics. This is something Clemson can accomplish if we work together.”
And yes, I gulped a few times before I said that, because I knew we had been in the third tier a year or two before. And we’re not there yet. But five consecutive years in the top 25 is clearly a trend, a level of success that I think we can be proud of.
CW: You also noted in your inauguration speech that “Clemson is still a work in progress.” What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your 14 years?
BARKER: It’s hard not to start with technology. The kind of impact that instant communication has had — much for the better I think. I would list the range and location of where we are attracting students now — truly a national base, and an international base. Paths are as well worn in parts of China for students following their colleagues as they are in Bamberg and up and down the East Coast and in California and all the Midwest.
The other thing that’s changed dramatically for the better is our self-concept. To a person, we believe that we are a great school. Now some would say we are on our path to being a great school, and I wouldn’t argue with that either. There are still many things we want to accomplish, but our expectations are that we’re going to be great. That’s emboldened us to dream bigger dreams and to try harder things. I’m proud of all three of those things, but I think the change in self-concept is fundamental to the success of what our university can be.
CW: What was your biggest challenge?
BARKER: We’ve never really had the financial base to be able to justify our dreams. At the start of my service, we were 40 percent funded by the state, and now we’re about 9 percent funded by the state. When I was a student, it was about 80 percent.
But the biggest challenge, I think, was the Great Recession, when we all were furloughed — all of us took a pay cut — and yet we came through without any layoffs. We kept the Clemson Family as united as can be in a crisis like that. Coming out of that now, we’re stronger than we ever were. Certainly our capital campaign has shown that — we’re approaching $700 million, and we’re dead serious about reaching that $1 billion goal. When we do, we’ll be the only school our size ever to have done that, and I think that shows a lot about self-confidence and self-concept.
CW: You’ve often begun speeches with stories of life in the president’s house. What’s one of your favorites from over the years?
BARKER: Maybe the first one I told is still my favorite. We were here on a Saturday — just the two of us, Marcia and I — and that doorbell rang. I was doing something, so Marcia opened the door. She found me and said, “There’s a group of students who want to talk to you.” So I went out to talk with them, and they said, “We’re on our way to Bowman Field to play Frisbee. Do you wanna play?”
I called back to Marcia and said, “Can I go out and play?” And she said, “Yes, as long as you’re back by 3 o’clock, because you have an appointment at that time.”
That engagement is something I treasure probably more than anything else about living on campus or this work. That students would think to invite the president to play Frisbee — there is just something right about that. And I guess that gave me the confidence, that maybe I ought to get in the Tiger suit and do push-ups, and who knows, water-ski behind the rowing team. That degree of engagement always seemed to me to be the most joyful part of the job, but an important part of the job too.
CW: How has your background in architecture enriched your presidency?
BARKER: I can’t imagine a better preparation, a better education for a university president than architecture. I never thought of it this way, but at some point about six months into this service, it dawned on me that I’m practicing architecture.
My education was very broad — all the way from poetry to plumbing — but it wasn’t very deep. And that’s what a president’s job is. You don’t have to be an expert in everything on campus, but you need to have some understanding. The liability is that I don’t have the depth in any one area, but as president, that could get in your way. I really value that education because of the breadth that it gave me. It also asked for me to use both sides of my brain, the left brain and the right brain. So you’ve taken physics and you’re also taking painting.
The other part is that I am conditioned to strive for the beautiful. My eyes and my brain are very much tuned to things that aren’t, and they stand out when you’ve had that kind of education. I really value the beauty of this campus and making sure that it continues to become even more beautiful with every decision we make. It’s not just an aesthetic game I’m playing; we attract students and faculty to this campus because they look around and say, “This is beautiful — I want to live here.” It makes me look forward to getting up and coming to work every morning because I’m surrounded by this kind of beauty.
We have to make sure that we continue to do that in both the design of our buildings, and in the spaces between the buildings, the outdoor rooms. We ought to strive for this place to be a garden — every inch of it to be a garden — and I think we’re making real progress there.
I get to live here, and enjoy it when it’s filled with people and enjoy it when it very quiet and the mist is coming off of the lake. It’s a spectacular piece of the earth.
CW: When you look back, what were your proudest moments, both personally and professionally?
BARKER: Let me touch on a few of the highlights. I think that each one was a success that I didn’t do, that the campus did — everybody was a part of this. These things are too complex for one person to do. But I would list among them the fact that we set out to get a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and now students are leaving Clemson with that very important credential, and it’s changed our self-concept.
The fact that we enrolled and created the National Scholars Program in 2000 — I would list that as a major moment.
The fact that we raised tuition 42 percent in one year and kept this family together. People rallied to support it because they believed in the quality of a Clemson education. We were one of the lowest priced, in terms of tuition, statewide, and we should have been priced according to the value we were giving. We built that base, and heaven knows — that was before the Great Recession — where would we be if we hadn’t done that? The quality wouldn’t be there.
The partnerships we’ve enjoyed with BMW, with Michelin, with the City of Greenville and with the state that created ICAR. It was a matter of really good teamwork and really good timing, and it’s helped give South Carolina a direct look at what a knowledge-based economy looks like.
The way we got through the Great Recession, with no layoffs, and we kept ourselves together.
The fact that, at the start of the Will to Lead capital campaign, we could have delayed that announcement, because you don’t do that kind of fundraising in the worst recession in 60 or 80 years. The Board said continue, the Foundation Board said continue, and we did. And that’s why we are where we are now.
Winning both a National Championship in Golf and the Habitat for Humanity International College Chapter of the Year. That shows the true balance of Clemson.
The Department of Energy grant we got to develop the drivetrain test facility in North Charleston, which is nearing completion now. That $45 million, combined with the state match, produced a $100 million project that we were able to capitalize on to create an environment that will help industry and serve our students remarkably well.
Creating the Academic Success Center, and Dori Helms, our provost, deserves credit for that. It was her idea and now we see the physical manifestation of a very good idea in a brand new building on campus.
I was touched by the Ring Ceremony, and having Col. Ben Skardon, one of my teachers, talk about what his ring had meant to him on the Bataan Death March and his prisoner-of-war experience for almost four years in the second World War.
And one that was hard, was the brawl we had with the University of South Carolina in football in 2004. We decided that we weren’t going to go to a bowl game. That was behavior we couldn’t accept, and we were not going to reward ourselves by having a bowl experience. I think that sent a pretty clear message about where our priorities were and a little bit of a statement about Clemson’s integrity. It was not universally praised, but I think it was the right thing to do.
CW: How has being an alumnus affected your presidency?
BARKER: Clemson is not ordinary; it is not normal. It is a school with all sorts of idiosyncrasies. We just don’t behave like other schools behave, and we don’t put priorities on things that some people, at other schools, might put priorities on. But the things we do put priorities on are critically important to us. It has taken me a lifetime to figure those things out.
I started at Clemson as a 17-year-old, the oldest of three boys, in a family that never had anyone go to college. My father died a year before the first time I walked across Bowman Field. I’ve just found that knowing that history, those traditions, how a campus can embrace someone — that’s where our priorities ought to be, and I understood that almost instinctively. I would have been a lousy president somewhere else because I didn’t understand those things. I think that understanding those distinctive qualities, praising them, strengthening them, has been an important part of what I hope we’ve accomplished.
CW: Is there anything you would characterize as “unfinished business” as you retire?
BARKER: The enterprise legislation. I knew it was a very hard task to get that through in one year and even more so in an abbreviated year. But that’s unfinished. It must happen — it is vital to our future. But we’re halfway there, and we’ll be planning our efforts between now and when the legislature begins in January. And we’ll be very active in this offseason to plant the right seeds hopefully so that we can be successful.
CW: What will you miss as you return to the classroom?
BARKER: No more knocks on the front door and to see who’s there — to open that door and to see what kind of Clemson experience someone is having, and whether or not I can make that better. I will miss that. I’ll miss the interaction with students and with faculty and staff too, but that interaction with students. That’s one thing we’ll miss, living right here in the middle of campus, surrounded by that energy, or that depression after the first round of tests. You can feel it by just being a part of this campus. So being an integral part of the campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is something I think we’ll miss.
CW: Is there a place on campus that has been particularly significant for you, either as a student, faculty member, or as president?
BARKER: There are moments when you walk on this campus that you get these glimpses of the mountains. There are a couple of beautiful spots where that happens on the campus; one of them is at the base of Tillman Hall. You look down College Avenue, and you see those mountains looming in the distance. I never get tired of that view. It’s breathtaking.
And Bowman Field, because every time I walk across it, I have that memory of the first time I walked across it, and the sense that this campus gave me, just intuitively, that said, “You’re going to be okay. We know you’ve got lots of challenges, financial, you lost your dad, you’re sort of representing your whole family in this effort. Trust us, you’ll be okay.” I felt that very much that first time, and now when I walk across Bowman Field, I feel the same way, every single time.
CW: Is there a person who was particularly significant for you as a student?
BARKER: Ben Skardon. This Marine reading poetry in his big deep gravelly voice and reading Shelley and Keats — I was just mesmerized by that.
Two faculty members in architecture who realized that I was having a financial crisis. They found a scholarship that fit my grade point average and need, and that kept me from having to drop out of school.
And then there was this speech teacher who had us listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King back in 1966 or ’67. She never talked about the content. She would say, “Listen to the inflection here. You know I’ve been teaching you about how repetition works when you’re giving speeches, and inflection and volume.” I was a changed person coming out of that class. I was not the same person walking out of there that I was when I walked in. It wasn’t just about technique and speech either.
CW: It’s obvious that you and Mrs. Barker have approached this presidency as a partnership. How has that enriched and strengthened your presidency?
BARKER: That’s absolutely true. The grace that she’s shown and the hospitality that she’s shown — I think it’s in her DNA. But also the kind of preparation that I had for the job — she had the same. Consider this — our first year of married life was in married student housing here. So she had that same understanding about Clemson that I had and was an active part of the community. From her preschool days [as a teacher and director at Fort Hill Church], she has a lot of alumni in this town, and now they’re my alumni. So we’ve handed off four-year-olds who became Clemson graduates, and that’s really a joy to see. When she sees them walking across the stage getting their degree, it’s a special moment for her too. I don’t have any doubt that the best first lady that Clemson’s ever had is Marcia.
CW: Any other thoughts you’d like to share with us?
BARKER: I think the thing that I’m feeling right now, as the time for us to change majors comes, is an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am overcome by moments that are so special to me that demonstrate the opportunity that we’ve been given, and the gratitude that I feel for that opportunity to serve my alma mater for 14 years, to be the spokesperson for the Clemson Family, in times of loss, in times of celebration, all the way to memorial services for students, to picking up the trophy from the ACC Championship on the field and everything in between. I just have an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
CW: I would say the University probably has the same sense towards you.
BARKER: I don’t know about that part, but I just know what’s rolling around in my head and my heart, and it’s powerful.