Bob Jones, Clemson’s new executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, has called many places “home” over the years. A native of western New York state, he came to Clemson as an undergraduate to study forestry, drawn to the area for the biodiversity of its trees. Since then, he and his wife, Jeri ’80, have been at the University of Georgia, Syracuse, Auburn, Virginia Tech and West Virginia University. But when Jones had the opportunity to come back to Clemson as provost, he knew he was truly coming home.
Jones took some time for an interview about his time as a student at Clemson and his goals to move Clemson forward.
Q: Tell me about your experience as a Clemson student. Do any special memories stand out?
A: A powerful memory was the first time I sat with about 60 other foresters in a class and realized there were 60 other people who had the same passion I did. I was a New Yorker, I had long hair and looked a little bit like a hippie, but I worked hard, and the faculty didn’t care what I looked like or what my cultural background was; they recognized that I was working hard and performing, and they rewarded me and encouraged me. All of my faculty were welcoming and encouraging, and they were an inspiration for me. I finally said to myself, “I want to be like them.” The Forestry Club was important part of my intellectual and social development. And I spent a lot of time learning — and playing — in the Experimental Forest. The Experimental Forest is a fantastic resource for the University that is somewhat underutilized and underappreciated.
Q: Your wife, Jeri, is also a Clemson alum. How did you meet?
A: Jeri was a zoology major in the pre-vet program. Her curriculum called for one plant class, so she took plant ecology, and we were in the same class — that’s how we met. She was involved in theater and chorus, and she invited me to come to a theater production where she was volunteering as an usher. That was our first date. She was worried I wasn’t going to show up, and when I did show up, all she did was show me to my seat and say thank you. On the surface, it wasn’t much of a first date! But it meant a lot to me.
Q. Has anything surprised you about Clemson since you have come back?
A: Clemson has advanced beyond most institutions in developing true interdisciplinary scholarship and learning. I was pleasantly surprised that we’re very good at that, ahead of most universities that I know. I knew Clemson had become strong in undergraduate learning and had built a strong cadre of undergraduate students working within a challenging learning environment, but when I saw Clemson’s highly innovative and interdisciplinary nature in person, I was very impressed. It’s a great platform to start from as the University continues to go forward.
Q: A lot has changed since you were a student at Clemson, but what have you found that has not changed?
A: <laughs> Johnstone Hall and the University Union! I know with the Core Campus project under construction and other plans being developed, those buildings will be coming down in the next few years, but I’m glad I got here before the end of that chapter. I have been able to relive some of my fondest memories there.
Q. This year, Clemson achieved a long-held goal by moving into the U.S.News & World Report top 20 public colleges and universities. So what’s next? What will the next major University goal be?
A: A new vision is now beginning to crystalize, and I think it will focus on three areas: continuing to improve the undergraduate learning experience, building a strong international reputation in graduate studies and increasing our national prominence in research. Those three goals have to be highly integrated — enhancing one area should automatically enhance the others. For example, as we grow our research programs, it should create more research opportunities for our undergraduates, and we’ll see higher quality teaching from Ph.D. students added to the mix. As we grow graduate studies, that will, in turn, help accelerate our research and provide more tutoring and mentoring for our undergraduate students. If you do it strategically, they are all linked. They can all push each other higher.
Q: You worked with President Clements at West Virginia, where you were dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Describe your relationship with him and how the two of you will work together at Clemson.
A: President Clements and I share the same core values, and we have very complimentary skill sets. He is a charismatic, visionary leader; I am an implementer. Put those two things together, and we make a strong team.
Q. Clemson has a number of administrative and leadership positions that need to be filled. What types of people will you be looking for when filling those important positions?
A. There are two qualities I’ll be looking for in new administrators: they need to be collaborative and visionary. We need collaborators to help build teams that work together well, and we need visionaries to look at and plan for Clemson’s future.
Q. Any final thoughts to share?
A: Sometimes people have a hard time seeing the strengths and potential of their own institution. When you come from the outside, though, it’s really clear. Perhaps it’s just human nature; we are struggling with our daily workloads and tasks, and sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Someone from the outside takes a look and sees the whole forest before they see the trees. That’s what I see when I look at Clemson. I see huge potential.