In what is expected to be his final speech to faculty as president of Clemson University, James F. Barker said Tuesday the university needs to tout the educational importance of Clemson’s unique sense of place for the university to thrive in an era in which online educational opportunities threaten to erode the value of a traditional college campus experience.
The university needs to find a balance between brick and mortar and “click and learn,” and his successor must be ready to embrace change while holding true to the traditions of South Carolina’s land grant institution, he said during the convocation kicking off the university’s 121st academic year.
“Think about it,” Barker said. “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.”
Barker, who announced four months ago his intention to step down and return to the architecture department as a faculty member, noted the economic struggles that have plagued South Carolina and the nation in recent years.
“We need education and research to solve problems, to bring prosperity,” he said. “Clemson must deliver this much-needed transformation. So a commitment to bold, even radical change is a true Clemson tradition.”
Clemson’s board of trustees has begun a search for a new president, but Barker has said he will remain in the office until a successor is in place, which is expected to be during the upcoming academic year.
Classes for fall semester start today.
During his 18-minute speech at the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts, Barker recalled his first impression of Clemson as a freshman architecture major nearly half a century ago, and how it has shaped his view of the institution.
“I still remember being a 17-year-old kid walking across Bowman Field for the first time and just intuitively feeling this place speak to me. It said, ‘You’re going to be OK. We know you’ve got lots of challenges. Financial challenges. You lost your dad last year. You’re the first in your family to go to college, so you’re sort of representing your whole family with this effort. But trust us, you’re going to be OK.”
He said he has tried to stay in touch with that “inner 17-year-old” throughout his years at Clemson.
That sense of place, of the university as a family that cares for each individual while being sensitive to the needs of others, is important for the next president to understand, Barker said.
Digital and communications technology “is disrupting and re-making higher education – just as it has publishing, news and other knowledge institutions,” he said.
Last year, Clemson taught 707 courses online, which amounted to 7 percent of total student credits earned, he said.
“Predictions are for much, much more learning to move into cyberspace, with uncertain effects on the physical campus itself,” he said.
He referred to a paper he wrote on the subject in which he said, in part, “A beautiful, stimulating campus environment attracts the best students, faculty, and staff. It encourages personal reﬂection and group learning. Simply being together in a physical place, as a community of teachers and learners, has tremendous educational advantages.
“The residential college experience still has powerful advantages, especially where faculty actually live among students, increasing the opportunities for spontaneous teaching and learning.”
He quoted Stanford President John Hennessy as saying, “There is a tsunami coming ... but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there.”
Finding the proper balance between tradition and change will be challenge for Clemson’s faculty and the next president, he said.
“I’m counting on each of you to give the next generation of leaders your informed support as they work to fulfill Clemson’s obligation to the future by adapting to circumstances we can’t really even begin to imagine in the present.”
During the convocation, the Philip Prince Award for Innovation in Teaching, named for former Clemson President Phil Prince, was awarded to Steven Schvanaveldt, a lecturer in the chemistry department.
The Excellence in Mentoring Award went to biophysics professor Emil Alexov.
Interim Provost Nadim Aziz also recognized 83 faculty members who received tenure or promotions.