S.C. State needs culture change, new president says

New SC State President hits the ground running

James Clark was serving on the board at the school in Orangeburg before taking the presidency.
Up Next
James Clark was serving on the board at the school in Orangeburg before taking the presidency.

S.C. State University needed a reality check when state lawmakers replaced the school’s board of trustees a year ago, new school president James Clark says.

Clark, who was one of those new trustees, remembers being struck by the apparent disconnect between how some S.C. State community members viewed the school’s problems – largely financial – and what the actual causes were.

“Sometimes when you’re part of an organization ... your perception may be off from what most of the rest of the world thinks,” said Clark, who was the longtime head of a division of AT&T’s computer business. “And I just saw that in a lot of places.”

Some S.C. State supporters thought all of the university’s financial woes, which threatened the school’s accreditation and continued existence, were because of insufficient state funding, Clark said. While more money might have helped, the 120-year-old, historically black public university had larger internal problems to address, the school’s new president said.

A campus-wide culture change, commitment to “customer service” and higher expectations are among several prescriptions Clark listed for the Orangeburg school during an interview with The State newspaper this week.

Nine highlights from the interview:

1. On how his business skill set matches with S.C. State’s needs:

“The university is in what I call ‘turnaround mode.’ The university has got a lot of operational things that must be dealt with. We’ve got sound academic programs, but that’s being muddled and pressed down and covered up by some of the operational issues that the university has, some of the fiscal issues that the university had. ... And so, I don’t bring some new academic weight to this. There’s tons that I don’t know, but we have lots of strong academic people that I will have to rely upon, that I will learn from, that I will be engaging. ... So there’s a particular skill set for an institution that’s in turnaround mode that requires a new operational excellence that they felt I could do.”

2. On the things he will get done within the next year:

“I will instill a new passion, bias for action and commitment to customer service for our primary stakeholders, the students, parents and their families. I will instill a sense of reaching far beyond your greatest expectations or understanding the ability to do far more than what is thought possible right now. And I will establish an additional or new level of pride, kind of renewal of the brand. And I will have established a new approach to partnerships and collaborations that elevate the academic posture of the institution. And I’ll be graded on it.”

3. On S.C. State’s recovery process:

“In order for it to thrive, it’s got to do a lot of things, including, like I said, renewal of the brand and changing the image. And the way you do that? Start changing the culture. You’ve got to change the responsiveness to everything. You’ve got to change the view and perspective of internal messaging that occurs, the external messaging that occurs. You’ve got to deliver. Nothing breeds success like success. ... I’m going through every department and maybe putting my fingerprint on things. No thing is too small to not pay attention to it. Nothing. ... But I’m trying to bring about a certain immediacy, like right now, right now, right now, right now. I’m wide open, and I’m going full pedal to the metal. One person told me, in a sense he said, ‘We’ve had to do more work in the last two weeks with you than we had to do in six months.’ I think he was kind of joking, but he meant that it’s relentless, unwavering, because we’ve got a lot to get done.”

4. On his vision for S.C. State at full capacity:

“I don’t know. And I tell people the second best answer you can always give is, ‘I don’t know.’ I really don’t know yet. Right now, I’m focusing on getting some of the core fundamentals back so that we are a smooth-running engine. And as we get that engine running, that allows me to bring the right people and departments and groups together to bear on the problem, to do the proper assessment.”

5. On whether he expects to meet S.C. State’s short-term enrollment goal of 2,900 students. (Enrollment now is expected to be short of that goal by 850 students, though Clark said some returning students simply haven’t registered for classes yet.):

“I’m flat out going for it. I’m going to be meeting all day. The cabinet knows that right now, I gave them a few hours break today to come over here and do this. They’re researching and getting all kinds of new data because we’re going to have a full-day session tomorrow, multiple programs that we’re going to be launching by the end of the week to meet that goal.”

Those programs, Clark said, include allowing students who have dropped out of S.C. State to work toward re-enrolling and earning their degrees, enlisting alumni to recruit new students and starting a Presidential Promise program. That program would allow students who don’t have the money to register to enroll anyway with plans to pay back the balance due.

6. On the school’s budget:

“We will have a balanced budget. ... There will be some cuts ... and everybody knows that. ... Each department knows what they have to do, and it’s up to them to figure out how they reach their savings. I won’t sugarcoat anything for anyone. That will mean in some areas some staffing cuts, some areas just not spending as much. ... And if we have more enrollment than we had planned for, the cuts or furlough times will be less. ... Specific programs are not up to me. That’s up to the department to assess what programs are the right ones.”

7. On the areas that will be cut most:

“Probably the department that’s affected the most, year over year, is athletics. In other words, departments have been squeezing down and squeezing down and squeezing down. We have not been squeezing as much on athletics. And so we had to squeeze a little bit more there. ... I hope (for) a growth in athletics over the coming years. That’s what I would hope to see. It’s a function of how we do as a university, how we do in enrollment, which determines how much we can afford. But that is my hope, that is my desire, and that’s my long-term expectation.”

8. On S.C. State’s endowment, currently at $7 million:

“Well, like a lot of schools of its type, we don’t have a massive endowment. We are not a Harvard endowment. ... People that were hesitant when there’s this cloud hanging over you, folks wonder about how much they should give. But I think that once ... there’s lots of positive messages out there, people see change occurring, people envision a future for the institution, then the purse strings get loosened. And when you have a focus area, you can target your developmental efforts to areas to get large sums not just from alumni, but also from business entities and grants and other types of funding. ... Once you do that, then you can expect a significant increase. The development office already knows ... the expectation is going to be amped up quite significantly.”

9. On whom he is contacting for advice:

“I will be reaching out to, quite frankly, other HBCU presidents. I’ve talked to some already. Clearly, I’ve spent time over at Benedict (where Clark was a longtime trustee). Right across the street, (Clafin University president) Dr. Tisdale. I’ve spoken with him. We’re going to meet and spend more time. I’ve just left (University of South Carolina president) Dr. Pastides. He was VP of research back when I chaired the (USC) research foundation board. So we’ve known each other. … Over the next few days, I’ll be reaching out quite a bit to them and seeking their advice and counsel and listening, because they are the experts there.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

James E. Clark

S.C. State’s new president

Age: 64

Education: Graduate of MIT and MIT’s Sloan School of Management

Family: Single, no children

Professional: Former AT&T executive in Columbia, where Clark lives; he plans to commute to S.C. State in Orangeburg. Clark was named a S.C. State trustee last summer, when legislators fired the school’s former board. He was named president of the college last month.

Lessons from the Charles River

New S.C. State president James Clark said he learned many of his motivational skills during his days on MIT’s crew team.

As the coxswain of the rowing team, Clark was the de facto coach in the boat, urging his teammates to row faster and stronger. Clark said the MIT team in the fall of 1972 beat the “just-then-crowned U.S. Olympic silver medalists” and went on to represent the United States at the world-famous Henley Royal Regatta race in England.

Clark said his MIT team made it to the championship round race before losing because of an accident. But the skills he learned while pushing his teammates to the brink can carry over to any competitive environment, including running S.C. State, he said.

“The idea is realizing the talent that you have, realizing how far you can press,” Clark said. “You can demand more, realizing they have more and demanding it from them and getting right to that point, not to the breaking point, but right up to that point where, that’s it – don’t go any further.”