Meet the Experts: Johnson Link
Johnson Link is in his third year as associate vice president within the Division of Student Affairs. He oversees the municipal services arm of the division, including the Clemson University Police Department (CUPD), Emergency Preparedness, Fire/EMS, Municipal Court and Parking and Transportation Services.
Link has been a Clemson native his entire life and owns the rare distinction of having served both the university and city as chief of police. In 2017, he earned the Abernathy/Cox One Clemson Award for exceptional service to both the City of Clemson and Clemson University.
We recently caught up with Link to discuss growing up in Clemson, his public safety background and transition into Student Affairs.
Q: You’ve been around Clemson your entire life, is that right?
Link: My dad worked here and retired as the chief of police and was working on campus when I was born. The five of us lived on campus, including my two older sisters. We lived in a pre-fab staff house which was located where the Brooks Center parking lot is today. We lived in several houses on campus, including one I remember where Lever Hall is now. I grew up on Calhoun Street. Eventually, my mother worked at Redfern and my dad retired in either 1984 or 1985. I have great memories of growing up on campus. I remember basketball games in Fike, that was quite the deal. You used to be able to sit on the 50-yard line at football games. I loved baseball, and back then they played on what is now the lower intramural field across from Fike. The kids would chase fly balls. I liked the scoreboard, I’d help them hang the scores after each inning. We’d lay around in the outfield not paying attention.
I went to Daniel High School. I was probably like most other folks, I started at Clemson but academics wasn’t my top priority. I thought I wanted to teach and coach, honestly. But police work was also intriguing. I was hired and worked for the city police department for 25 years. I started that in February 1978. In July 1985, I was appointed the chief of police. At one time, I was the youngest police chief in its history. I worked up until 2002, before moving on to a teaching job at Tri-County Technical College. I always said I wanted to move onto something else when I reached 25 years with the police department. I went to Lander and earned my degree in sociology, focusing on criminal justice. My two oldest kids were already out of the house by then. We had our baby girl, Hannah, in 1996. I missed a lot of stuff as police chief with the first two children. I was blessed with Hannah to have another shot at being a dad. I loved the classroom and teaching the students. But after I was there for a year, the man who hired me left to work in the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office. And when he left, they wanted me to become the department head. I didn’t want the job initially, but I took it. We had a reorganization and I had to deal with adjunct faculty, and it reduced my teaching. A public services department was created, which included criminal justice, radio and television broadcasting and early childhood development. I wasn’t teaching; I was an administrator.
But then the university chief of police job came open in 2006, and it had always been something I had my eye on. It came open and I knew that if I wanted to go for it, that was going to be my last shot. I applied and the interview process was brutal; it lasted two days. Mary Poore, who was in the role I have now, called me and said the job was going to open back up and that I’d still be a candidate. So, I had to go through another process. And it was just as lengthy. (Former Vice President for Student Affairs) Gail DiSabatino made me an offer and apologized a couple of times after that for putting me through the ringer. She’d never handled police supervision, so she wanted to make sure she was comfortable. I came on board as chief of police, and then Mary left. I wound up overseeing the Fire and EMS departments. I was reclassified as the chief of public safety. We built the Emergency Management department and hired Lynn Fisher. When Almeda Jacks came in, they added Parking and Transportation Services as well as the Municipal Court and made me associate vice president for municipal services in July 2015.
Q: How has your current role been different for you?
Link: It’s provided me with other opportunities. I was very familiar with the public safety side of things. Dan Hofmann is a great director to work with in Parking and Transportation Services, but it’s completely different. And then the Municipal Court was different. I have great directors. The most difficult aspect was letting go of the day-to-day stuff. Not being involved in that decision-making was an adjustment. But now I have a greater opportunity to be an influence in this role than I did as chief of police. I get up, come to work and think about what I can do to make sure Clemson is as safe as it can be. I go to bed thinking it, and wake up thinking it. And it’s been embraced here, where I can have a voice about safety.
Q: What was it like to follow in your father’s footsteps as university chief of police?
Link: I get emotional thinking about it. I have a picture of him in uniform and me beside him when I was 5 or 6 years old. He’s passed, but I learned so much from him.
Q: What’s it been like to not only hire Jami Brothers as chief of police, but also see her grow in the first year on the job?
Link: I knew when we hired Jami that she was going somewhere. She was very talented and performed every role we tasked her with. She did every job well. I knew she’d advance in the organization. I think she’s proven herself in a short period of time. It’s been a tough year, there’s a lot going on. You don’t understand things such as personnel decisions and how time-consuming it can be until you’re in that seat. She’s had hiring decisions, and people leaving. It’s rewarding to see people you’ve hired and worked with come along and be successful.
Q: How unique is Clemson that municipal services falls under that umbrella of Student Affairs?
Link: The last survey I saw showed that about 25 percent of institutions house public safety and municipal services under Student Affairs. Fifty percent fall under finance and operations. And then the other 25 percent lies somewhere else on an administration level. Most are working under another model. But I think we’re in the right place. It’s been discussed a few times, whether we’re in the right place. I’m a community police practitioner, meaning you develop partnerships in the community to identify and solve problems. I’ve always said, regardless of where we are in the pecking order, we’re going to be working with athletics, Redfern, residential life — all those areas and more. In order to be successful, we must have those relationships. It works where we are. It requires us to communicate better across the board. Almeda really likes the model, and it works well for us.
Q: You received the Abernathy/Cox One Clemson Award in 2017 – what did that honor mean to you?
Link: Larry Abernathy was the best friend I ever had. He went to school here and was involved in alcohol and drug abuse awareness. He taught classes at Clemson for years. I met him at the YMCA when he was a coach. I grew up with him, playing baseball every summer for him. We went our different ways, but I always followed him. He made his way onto the city council and I was in the police ranks at 20 or 21. After seven years, I was appointed city police chief around the same time he was the newly elected mayor. I saw him do a lot of great things over the years. Whether you like it or not, a police chief has to have some political talent and be able to navigate things. Larry never asked me to fix a ticket or question any arrest; no chief of police could ever tell you that about a mayor. Then, to receive an award named after him meant a lot. The Joint City/University Advisory Board was the brainchild of Larry and (former Clemson University president) Walter Cox a long, long time ago. That was very special.
Q: As you think about the future, what are some important things you’ve identified as it relates to municipal services?
Link: We’re continuing to grow. Problems come with that, such as infrastructure as it relates to parking or transit systems. We need to pay special attention to those issues. Student Affairs is about helping our students be successful. The primary thing is safety. I was in a meeting with some folks recently, and someone said ‘If students don’t feel safe, they’re not going to be successful.’ And that’s why I get up every morning thinking what we can do to build a safe culture. The recognition of being the nation’s safest campus says a lot. It’s nothing I’ve done, or the police department — it’s what we’ve all been able to accomplish, together. We have to keep that sense of safety, and we do that by promoting best practices. And we do that by being proactive, rather than reactive.