Jim Barker thought he would spend 10 years leading Clemson University. But when that decade was up in 2009, he decided didn’t want to leave – during the worst of the Great Recession.
Barker said Tuesday that he remained in office to make sure the school managed through that economic downturn. Satisfied Clemson was on track – with a large fundraising campaign and a long-range development plan both under way, as well as with improvements to the faculty and student body – the 65-year-old told Clemson’s trustees last week that he would retire, once a successor was found.
“All those reasons, it seems to me, make the job as attractive as it possibly can be for the next president coming in,” said Barker, who made his plans public Tuesday. “You don’t want to leave a crisis or some problem that has to be solved.”
After a national search is completed, Barker will go back to his original job, teaching architecture, until 2017, when he must leave according to state-employee retirement rules. Barker’s career started as a 1970 architecture graduate from Clemson. He also was dean of Clemson’s architecture school before becoming the Upstate university’s president.
The Kingsport, Tenn., native is known for a decade of growth at Clemson that helped boost the school’s rankings among public colleges in U.S. News and World Report’s annual survey. Clemson fell just short of his initial goal of reaching the Top 20; the school sits 25th in the latest rankings.
Barker also worked to lower Clemson’s student-faculty ratios, raise students’ SAT scores and graduation rates and increase the amount of research money that the university brought in. He also oversaw the development of the International Center for Automotive Research, in nearby Greenville, to take advantage of BMW having its only U.S. plant in the Upstate. And he saw development of the Restoration Institute in North Charleston, which works on a number of projects, ranging from conserving a Civil War submarine to developing new wind turbines.
Clemson also is past the halfway mark of its $1 billion fundraising campaign, having collected $691 million in commitments. The campaign is scheduled to end in 2016.
Clemson’s enrollment also has grown more than 15 percent in the past decade – to about 20,000 – under Barker.
Barker recently returned to work after undergoing heart-bypass surgery in January. He said he is feeling fit and his health did not play a role in his decision to retire.
Still, between watching reruns of “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” while recovering, Barker said he contemplated whether he had reached the right time to leave the president’s office.
“I want to have my career end as a teacher, and this will give me several years to do that,” Barker said. “I would be very unhappy if I just stopped working.”
Clemson’s trustees do not have an immediate timetable to find a 15th president since Barker has agreed to stay on until his successor is named. However, trustee chairman David Wilkins, a former speaker of the S.C. House, said he expects to have Barker’s successor in less than a year.
Wilkins said Barker’s decision was not a complete surprise, considering he had been president for about twice as long as usual at most colleges.
“He took us to the next level,” Wilkins said. “He has given us great stability and leadership over the past 14 years. He was a unifier. There’s not going to be any replacing him.”
Barker is paid nearly $400,000 a year, which is in the middle of the pack for the nation’s 190 largest public colleges, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Gov. Nikki Haley, a Clemson graduate, Tuesday thanked Barker for his service to the state. “He has been a transformative leader for Clemson, and he leaves the university better than he found it,” her spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said in a statement.
Barker is the second long-serving S.C. college president to say he will retire. Winthrop University president Anthony DiGiorgio will end his 24-year run at the Rock Hill school at the end of the school year.
University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides said he received good advice from DiGiorgio and Barker about becoming a university leader when he took over at USC in 2007.
“Anybody who serves as many years as he has is a survivor, and it’s not out of luck,” Pastides said of Barker. “It’s because he had the respect ... of his board and his constituents.”
Barker hopes his final accomplishment is persuading S.C. lawmakers to free Clemson from state oversight on large construction projects and land purchases, a move the Clemson leader thinks will speed work and save money as state funding of higher education drops. Barker has said the legislation is the most important that Clemson has sought during his tenure.
“I am focused on keeping the momentum going and keeping the accelerator all the way to the floorboard so, when the next president arrives, that president can just jump on board,” Barker said.
Jim Barker’s accomplishments at Clemson
7 want to join Clemson bill
Seven S.C. public colleges have asked to be included in a bill that would allow Clemson University to bypass state regulatory approval for major construction projects and land purchases.
The presidents of the College of Charleston, The Citadel, Coastal Carolina, Francis Marion, S.C. State, Winthrop and Lander universities asked to join Clemson in a letter sent to a state Senate panel.
"USC backs the goals of the Clemson bill but is not interested in joining the measure at this time," president Harris Pastides said.
Lawmakers have asked USC for specific ways to streamline regulation "rather than to ask for the indulgence or the authority to put things under some other tent that was outside of the state reach," he said.
But, Pastides said USC would want an enterprise division if Clemson or other S.C. schools can create one.