Clemson University President Jim Barker will retire in January after leading the Upstate school for the past 14 years. Barker, 65, has been an innovator in higher education in South Carolina and nationally. Under his leadership, the university last week launched a massive wind turbine drivetrain testing facility in North Charleston. It represents a collaboration between the university and private industry, and serves as an example of the unique partnerships for which Barker has become known. The Post and Courier did a question and answer session with him:

What they said

Local leaders share their thoughts about Clemson President Jim Barker

“From a student athlete, to a teacher and dean, to president, Jim Barker’s relationship with Clemson University spans almost five decades. Jim’s hard work and ambitious vision created an environment that allowed Clemson to steadily rise among the top ranks of American universities. I greatly admire Jim’s dedication to Clemson and it has been a pleasure working with him to improve South Carolina’s colleges and universities.”

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell

“Several years ago when Jim Barker was chair of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, I served as vice chair. During our service together, I learned of his consensus-building skills, his quick grasp of sometimes thorny accreditation issues, and his genuine compassion.

When I also learned that he is a first-generation college graduate, I smiled. He ‘gets’ my world at Trident Tech.”

Mary Thornley, President, Trident Technical College

“It has been a distinct pleasure to have been associated with Jim for the 14 years he has served as president of Clemson University. The programs initiated during his tenure have greatly advanced the university and will have a statewide impact for generations to come. When first discussing the idea of creating the Restoration Institute in the city of North Charleston, we immediately embraced the idea and knew it would provide synergy for a new economic impact in the Lowcountry. What has developed at CURI has been nothing short of astounding and has garnered international attention for North Charleston. I consider Jim a close friend of North Charleston and wish him and Marcia well in their future endeavors.”

Keith Summey, mayor of North Charleston

“Jim Barker’s leadership at Clemson University over the past 14 years has been exceptional. He kept Clemson focused and on point in their quest to develop a nationally recognized university. I have enjoyed working alongside him to improve and advance higher education in South Carolina.”

George Benson, President, College of Charleston

“In his 14 years at Clemson, Jim Barker has demonstrated what it takes to be a modern university president. Jim has been an inspirational leader, a champion of academic excellence, an energetic fundraiser, and a tireless advocate for public higher education. Clemson is fortunate he will remain a part of the university as a faculty member in the School of Architecture. I wish him the very best.”

Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, President of The Citadel

“His leadership at Clemson was exemplary. He transformed Clemson into one of the top universities in the country. As the team coach of Clemson, he created an academic winning tradition. And he’s just a really fine man.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse

Q. What are some of your most significant accomplishments as president of Clemson?


Clemson University selected James Clements as its new president Nov. 12. Clements, now president of West Virginia University, will take the reins from Jim Barker in January. Clemson’s Board of Trustees did not release the list of names in the final pool of candidates for the school’s top post, which is required under state law. The Post and Courier has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the list.

A. That’s really hard to say. But the opening of the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center on the former Navy base in North Charleston definitely would be among the top five. This will be judged in history as something really significant. I’m also very proud of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, CU-ICAR, in Greenville.

But the thing at the top of my list, in all honesty, is shaking the hands of 60,000 graduates of Clemson and knowing that each one of those young people had a special journey they were on and that Clemson helped them find the greatness they have inside them. You see it in their faces at graduation. It’s a very special thing. I don’t know how you could put anything ahead of that.

Q.: You set an ambitious goal to have Clemson be ranked in the top 20 of public universities by U.S. News & World Report. You now are ranked 21st. How does it feel to get that close to your goal, but not quite reach it?

A: I wish I would have said 25. But I’m very proud of the progress Clemson has made working toward this goal. We need a goal. I don’t if it’s being a former military school or what it is. The first thing it did was improve Clemson’s self-concept. That was important.

All of the things required to improve in the ranking were things we were trying to do anyway, such as increasing graduation rates and improving faculty salaries. It aligned with our list. It ultimately will be up to the next president to reach top 20.

Q: What was the most controversial move you made during your tenure as president?

A: It probably was setting the goal to reach top 20. Some people said, ‘you’re getting too big for your britches.’ They said we were a land grant college, so we were supposed to take everyone who wants to come. We want to be one of the top 20 universities, and when we get there, we still want to be Clemson.

Q: You made some bold moves as president such as setting the top 20 goal and working hand-in-hand with private industry at CU-ICAR and the Energy Innovation Center. But you’ve drawn only a moderate amount of criticism in a state that can be resistant to change. How did you accomplish that?

A: My alma mater has a genius for understanding change and tradition. If we were a sphere, we would have a core that doesn’t change and a surface that is constantly changing. You have to make sure the core doesn’t get too big, or you get paralyzed. I just try to take advantage what I know of Clemson’s DNA.

And we also have not allowed Clemson to get too big, to keep it of the right size.

Q: What is the top thing you didn’t accomplish as president that you wish you had?

A: We didn’t pass the Enterprise Authority Act in the General Assembly last year. The act made it through the Senate, and was in the House when the session ended. It would have eased some of the bureaucratic burden required by the state and struck a better balance between accountability and flexibility. It would have made it easier to work with private companies like BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine doesn’t have time for a lumbering public university that requires layers and layers of approvals.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing your successor?

A: Of course it’s resources. But it’s also taking the next step and bringing the same level of quality to our graduate and research programs that we already brought to our undergraduate programs.

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.