Scoppe: What we could all learn from Clemson President Jim Barker

Associate EditorDecember 18, 2013 

— JIM BARKER is adamant that he won’t give his successor any advice unless or until asked. It’s part of the delicate balance he’s trying to strike as he becomes Clemson’s first former president to remain on campus as a professor.

But after 14 years as president — a period that saw a dramatic rise in the university’s national stature, including being ranked among the top 25 public universities by U.S. News & World Report for six consecutive years now — he is not at all hesitant to dole out advice to the Legislature, the state’s higher education community and the people of South Carolina.

We’d all do well to listen.

During the first half of his tenure, he recalls, “our state did some of the most innovative and boldest planning and thinking and execution that I think we’ve done in a long, long time.”

The LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships encouraged the best and brightest to stay in South Carolina rather than leaving for college, and likely a lifetime, out of state. (While I agree on the Palmetto scholarships, I think the LIFE scholarships mainly have taught the Legislature to believe it doesn’t need to fund colleges, and enticed students to four-year colleges who aren’t college material. But this is Mr. Barker’s story, so I’ll let him tell it.) An economic development bond act allowed Clemson to build the International Center on Automotive Research in Greenville and the Restoration Institute in North Charleston. The endowed chairs program (now called Smart State) helped the big three universities attract world-class professors. Enhanced scholarships made it easier to attract students pursuing the coveted science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.

“It was a time when higher education and the General Assembly were communicating,” he said in a recent visit with our editorial board. “There was the possibility of ideas. There was the seeing higher education as an answer to economic development as opposed to a drain on resources. That’s a subtle but significant shift in attitude.”

Then the Great Recession hit, “and that shifted everything, because it caused those kinds of initiatives to stop.” While the end of new initiatives was worrisome, far more destructive was the change in relationships. The change in mindsets. The shift to that idea of colleges as a bottomless pit for tax dollars, as a burden on families.

Partnerships eroded

It’s hard not to blame the Legislature for this change, because legislators became so fixated to slashing budgets (and continuing to slash taxes) that they lost what little appetite they ever had for investing in our state’s future. They became so desperate to find excuses to mollify an increasingly angry portion of the electorate that they started looking for scapegoats and shutting out the facts. Like the fact that even the leanest college has to raise tuition when the Legislature cuts state funding by 40 percent in a decade — not 40 percent after inflation; 40 percent.

Mr. Barker’s advice to lawmakers: Return to that not-too-far-removed understanding of universities as partners instead of enemies; find ways to work together, even if they don’t involve more funding. Start with the research enterprise act, which would give the colleges more flexibility in return for greater accountability for results.

But there are at least two parties in every relationship, and Mr. Barker lays part of the blame for the communication breakdown at the feet of the higher-education community — and specifically at the feet of the presidents of the big three universities.

“We aren’t thinking the way we were during that time either,” he said. “We’ve allowed the competitive spirit to become dark, and we need to work hard, and that’s our responsibility.” Indeed, while there haven’t been any public signs of hostility involving Mr. Barker, we saw some frays in the relationship between USC President Harris Pastides and Ray Greenberg when the MUSC president was blindsided by USC’s expansion of its medical school in Greenville.

Mr. Barker recalled the years when he and Andrew Sorensen and later Dr. Pastides gave joint budget presentations to the Legislature, when the two of them along with Dr. Greenberg routinely met together with House Speaker Bobby Harrell and the House and Senate budget chairmen. That doesn’t happen anymore, and he likewise traces that change to the recession.

“People were scrambling,” he recalled. “People were nervous. People were laying people off. We had to furlough all of our faculty and staff and me and all the football coaches and everybody, and that creates a certain tension, when you tend to get in your foxhole and hope this will go away, and that makes it harder to collaborate.”

With Dr. Greenberg already gone, and MUSC in the search for a new president, and Mr. Barker about to turn over the reins of the university to West Virginia University President Jim Clements, that makes Dr. Pastides the dean of the big three presidents — and places on him the greatest (but certainly not sole) responsibility to restore that relationship.

Small, poor state?

As important as it is for the Legislature and the universities to correct their mistakes, though, Mr. Barker’s most significant advice is for all of us. Actually, “advice” might not be a strong enough word. This is crusade material. But as I said, this is his story, so let’s let him explain:

“I’m working very hard to banish these words from the state of South Carolina: ‘Well, you know, we’re a small, poor state.’ If we could get away from those words and that attitude, it would have a huge impact on our future.”

Rather than focusing on our poverty, Mr. Barker says, we should focus on “how rich a state we have in terms of the quality of life here, our history, our culture, our human potential, the natural resources” and, he hopes, “a richness in the quality of our colleges and universities.”

There are people who see our richness, Mr. Barker noted, and we should all learn from them.

“Boeing’s not thinking that way,” he said. “BMW’s not thinking that way. They came to South Carolina not because of the poor state but it was richness that they found here. And I think they’ve captured the human potential side of that and believed in us.

“If a company like BMW locates here and expands here and expands and expands and expands here or a company like Boeing locates here, how can we still feel like we’re a small, poor state?

“For crying out loud, we’ve got to get over that. They wouldn’t make that kind of investment in a state that doesn’t have a great future.”

Indeed. But to capitalize on that great future, we need more leaders — in and out of government, and certainly in our Legislature — who understand our potential, and who are willing to get outside of their own narrow little worlds and support that effort. With Mr. Barker’s transition back to the classroom, we’ve just lost one of them.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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