Fortunately for Clemson, Felder never shied away from a challenge
It’s fair to say that Frankie O. Felder, the senior associate dean of the Graduate School who is retiring this month after 30 years at Clemson, loves a challenge. And that’s a good thing, because she grew up in a military family that moved around the world regularly. She was one of the first black undergraduates at Virginia Commonwealth University, and earned her PhD from Harvard at a time when African Americans earned less than one percent of all PhDs awarded annually. Then in 1987, Felder accepted a position as assistant dean for international programs and services at Clemson, where she was not only the first African-American dean in the university’s history, but also one of the first women to serve as dean.
“When I got here, I was the black administrator at meetings. I realized that I was almost always the only black person in the room, and oftentimes the only woman,” Felder said. “That was frustrating, but I thought it would improve over time. It did somewhat, but it look a long time. So I started thinking that I couldn’t leave until there were others to take my place…. I wasn’t going to leave because Clemson needed someone — someone African American — who wasn’t afraid to speak out about things that weren’t fair or equitable for graduate students or minority students or international students or just in general.”
The University has established the Frankie O. Felder Award to help support an outstanding graduate student each year. Contributions to the award fund may be made by contacting the Graduate School.
Her first assignment at Clemson: establish an international services office. “I worked 18-hour days for a long time on that one,” she said. “South Carolina’s immigration processes were a mess. Nothing was online [back then]. What staff we had working on those issues hadn’t been given much training, and everything took months. It was frustrating for us, and for the international students and researchers and maybe especially for the departments who were trying to get them here. So the first job, and one that lasted many years, was to professionalize that whole system at Clemson, create procedures, train people, and standardize [processes] so things were more efficient, more predictable. We’re light years ahead of where we were 30 years ago, and I’m happy that Clemson now has a full, robust office of international services. We can’t be a top-tier university if we can’t engage students and scholars globally.”
Task number two: Increase the number of minority graduate students at Clemson. Early on, Felder wrote a grant that was later used as a model by the U.S. Department of Education to teach universities how to write grants to fund diversity programs. In addition to grants to fund graduate students from underrepresented populations, “we started bringing top African American students to campus to let them meet some faculty members and students, to see what Clemson was like and what it had to offer,” she said.
The first Clemson contact for many of those students was Dr. Felder. To them and to thousands of other graduate students, she remained a mentor, a friendly voice, and a motivator throughout their graduate programs and beyond.
“I saw a lot of students who were struggling in graduate school,” she recalled, “and we as administrators have to listen not only to what students are saying but to what they’re not saying — a lot of times I would have a student in my office for two hours and not hear a word about why they’re doing their research, or why they study what they study, or what they want to do with it all. That’s when I’d know they’d lost their fire. Most of the time it was because they had something going on in their personal lives or they felt so far behind that they didn’t see a path forward. But life doesn’t stop because you go to graduate school: you have to figure out how you, personally, are going to make your own program work. Your advisor can’t do it; your program faculty can’t do it; no one can do it but you. We can help remove barriers and teach skills, but you still have to make it happen. That’s not necessarily what a struggling student wanted to hear, but I hope I helped them realize it was in their control to make it all happen. And a lot of them did make it happen.”
When she was promoted to associate dean of the Graduate School in 1994, she was charged with administering enrolled student services, diversity programs, publications, graduate curriculum, grievances, and graduate school accreditation and assessment, among other responsibilities.
It was in the associate dean role that Felder established a program called Focus on Research. Clemson’s first University-wide research showcase started as a poster forum where graduate students could present their research to the University community. It grew to an all-day program of events, then to Focus on Research Week, which culminated with hundreds of local schoolchildren at Littlejohn Coliseum doing hands-on projects and demos with graduate students. The program continued to grow until it became Focus on Research Month, with all of the public state universities in South Carolina participating and engaging high school and middle school students around the state. The Focus on Research model promoted students’ communication and presentation skills, fostered community engagement with the University, and celebrated curiosity and creativity before those things became the educational “must-haves” they are today.
Reflecting about what she hopes will remain constant at Clemson going forward, Felder says she hopes students continue to make progress on issues of diversity, inclusive excellence, and equity. “I’ve noticed a significant difference lately with the regard to issues of race, particularly, that students are having the courage to step forward and ask the Clemson family to see things from a different viewpoint. And it’s not just minority students, but white students, international students, all kinds of students…. I’m glad they’re engaged and involved and confident enough to share their concerns, because that’s the only way Clemson is going to move forward on these issues.”
Her time at Clemson “…has been a challenge and a joy. Things are improving. We’re not where we need to be, but we have more minority faculty, more diversity in general. The Clemson story is being told more fully, things are progressing, and there are many great people at Clemson who are helping that along. I feel like I’ve done what I can do and I’ve had the impact I can have here.”
But Felder’s not done with Clemson yet: she’s planning a book on the history of graduate education at Clemson, and will join the emeritus college after a year of travel and consulting in South Africa.