Clemson University’s new president has impeccable timing.
Jim Clements is just a few weeks away from becoming Clemson’s 15th president. He will take over Jan. 1, 2014, from Jim Barker, who is stepping down to return the school’s architecture faculty.
The new job starts just in time for the Tigers to take on Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.
“Not a bad assignment — the Orange Bowl,” Clements joked to a group of farmers and extension agents in a speech Wednesday night at the Madren Center.
After the game on Jan. 3, the new president will start to work in earnest.
“I’ll be listening and learning,” Clements said Thursday while on his third trip to campus since he was hired Nov. 11. “I’m not going to come in with any really fast decisions; I want to learn, and I don’t have any intention to bring (new staff) with me. It’s way too soon for that.”
Clements, 49, comes to Clemson with experience running a land-grant university. He went to West Virginia University as president in 2009 after serving as provost of Towson University near Baltimore. His tenure began not long after one of his predecessors was forced out by an academic scandal involving the daughter of then-Gov. Joe Manchin.
The new president made a strong first impression.
“He is very personable, knowledgeable and a quick study, so it’s fair to say that he hit the ground running here and never looked back,” said Becky Lofstead, West Virginia University assistant vice president for communications. “He’s the type of person who is on 24-7, as most college and university presidents are. Whether it’s attending faculty senate, hosting or building relationships with donors, listening to student and staff concerns, keeping in touch with opinion leaders, the board of governors and state and federal lawmakers, working on strategic initiatives, speaking at events — his days are strategic and full.”
Bill Rainey, president of the powerful West Virginia Coal Association, said Clements’ leadership skills were evident from the start.
“I think the university is one of those institutions that stands the test of time,” Rainey said. “It was in good shape, but he had to deal with a lot of background noise. From my perspective, he showed that he knew what he was doing from the start. He was open, had a positive nature and started taking charge of things.”
It’s been a busy four years for Clements. He has served on or been chairman of the governing boards of several organizations, including the West Virginia United Health System, West Virginia University Hospitals and the West Virginia Business Roundtable. He also initiated several research partnerships with private industries and the federal government. He instigated nearly $1 billion in new construction and investments in university facilities — all in addition to the daily oversight of nearly 20,000 employees and 30,000 students.
“He’s been very positive and transparent from the start,” Rainey said. “He’s treated everyone equally and gained a lot of confidence from everyone. ... He’s had a great rapport with the Legislature, too.”
Fundraising could be called the most important part of a university president’s job, given the steady drop in public money for state colleges and universities in recent years, and Clements appears to have a deft touch.
“As for fundraising, he’s a relationship builder — very charismatic and energetic,” Lofstead said. “He gets to know alumni and friends as people first. He’s secured some signature gifts — the Ben and Jo Statler gift of $34 million for the engineering college and Ruby McQuain Trust gift of $10 million for graduate education fellowships are likely the largest — but there are countless others that align with the university’s 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future to match gifts with specific goals.”
Clemson’s staff and faculty seem optimistic so far. Clements recently promised a national search for the university’s next provost, with faculty participation and approval as prerequisites for whoever gets the job.
“I have talked with President Clements a few times about various transition items,” said Kelly Smith, who presides over Clemson’s Faculty Senate. “I am very optimistic about him and what he can do for Clemson. He seems to have the right attitudes about academics in general and the faculty in particular, so I expect he will fit in just fine as part of the Clemson family.”
Clements is taking over his second major public university at roughly the same age that Barker assumed his first and only presidency. He has built an impressive resume compared to most administrators his age.
“How did I pull it off? I’ve lot of really good mentors and been blessed to have people to help me and encourage me a lot,” Clements said. “If you knew me in second grade, you’d know that my teachers called me ‘Professor.’ I always wanted to be professor — I never really thought I wanted to be a university president — and then I was asked (at Towson) to be a department chair. I took it because I wanted to help my department. ... I wasn’t looking for the West Virginia job, but the phone kept ringing.”
One could look at Clement’s record and assume he was ambitious, but one of his soon-to-be former employees disagreed.
“What I believe to be true is that he didn’t chase the Clemson job or any other job during his time here,” said Lisa Martin, chairwoman of the West Virginia University Staff Council. “He was, however, pursued by almost every major university that had an opening in the last couple of years. He quickly came to love WVU — which kept him here for this long — but Clemson ultimately made him an offer he simply couldn’t say no to. I can’t blame him for making a decision based on what is right for his family and his future. I’m almost certain it wasn’t an easy one for him to make.”
Clements has insisted since taking his new job that he and his wife, Beth, have always had their eyes on Clemson. Her parents are university patrons and her brothers both graduated from Clemson, and Clements said he has been a Tiger fan since watching Danny Ford’s 1981 championship football team.
“This place is special. ... We talked about this 20 years ago,” Clements said Thursday.
He leaves West Virginia on good terms with just about everyone, it would seem.
“You won’t get any criticism about President Clements from me — unless it’s to say he is leaving much too soon,” Martin said. “West Virginia University was lucky to find him when we did, even if only for a brief time.”
Rainey was even more succinct.
“Clemson is getting a real gem,” he said.