Robert “Bobby” Exley McCormick began his lifelong connection – and love affair – with Clemson University as a student in August of 1965.

But to understand this self-proclaimed “low-country farm boy’s” career achievements, devotion to education and his alma mater, one has to look at his entire body of work. In a recent interview, Bobby shed light on his upbringing, growing pains and epiphanies that would ultimately result in him earning a Ph.D. in economics and ascension to dean of the College of Business.

Bobby McCormick, Q&A, career, bus

All roads led back to Clemson for Jasper County native and Army veteran Bobby McCormick.
Image Credit: College of Business

Growing up in Jasper County, S.C., Bobby was team-parented by his mother and father, grandparents and aunts and uncles. As a child, he worked hard in the family businesses, at times working long hours on the family farm. He drove a tractor at age 9, a truck at 10 and a school bus at 16.

Despite a strong parental influence and exposure to adolescent responsibilities beyond his years, Bobby wasn’t ready to be cut loose as a scholar at Clemson in 1965. His first go around as an undergraduate was void of discipline and a commitment to study.

His growing pains at Clemson were interrupted and ultimately cured by a sabbatical with Uncle Sam. He served as an officer in the U.S. Army. It was in the early ‘70s in Korea where he honed his servant leadership skills that would later serve him well as dean of the Clemson business school.

Retirement, per se, probably isn’t Bobby’s next life stage when Wendy York takes the reins as the dean of the business school in July. You’ll likely see him engaged as a consultant, taking on projects, or even behind the wheel of a CAT bus. As he put it, “I don’t want to simply take up space. I want to be able to look behind me and see a cloud of dust. I came in as a bus driver, maybe I’ll go out as one. … Go Tigers!”

What were some of your most memorable moments as a student?

My undergraduate career at Clemson was a bit unconventional, but ultimately life-altering. My fondest memory was around 11:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1965. My parents, sister and grandparents brought me to Clemson and I was excited about starting the next chapter in my life where I would bloom and excel. At the moment my family drove off, I considered that the beginning of my adulthood. I didn’t have to report to anybody. As much as I loved my family, I had felt somewhat contained.

I was not a good student the first time around. All the good parenting I had didn’t mature me. A life-changing incident occurred when I woke up in Charleston on a day when I was supposed to be in school. I was about to ruin my life. I was depressed and realized I had to do something. I drove back to Clemson, dropped out of school and decided to join the Army, which helped me a lot.

It removed me from an ability to be inactive and ineffective. I was required to do things with consequences if I didn’t achieve. I was fortunate to be commissioned as a second lieutenant and ended up in South Korea. I had 140 men under me in 1971. I felt a deep sense of responsibility in making my unit function, similar to how I feel in my role today. The responsibility I felt then was the beginning of my journey to be part of something bigger than myself.

McCormick, construction, Q&A, building

Bobby McCormick rode out the last load of dirt from the construction site of the new business school building.
Image Credit: College of Business

The experience in Korea resulted in a lot of self-generated energy and helped me regain a desire to learn. I started reading again. It was a spark that ignited me to get excited about learning. That love affair with learning and reading hasn’t stopped.

When I returned to Clemson to finish my degree in January of 1972, I was dedicated, but for some reason, I was in a hurry to graduate and took 18 hours in the spring semester of ’72 and 18 hours of summer school to graduate in August of that year. Turns out, I didn’t want to leave school quite yet.

After I got my undergraduate degree, it seemed like I was at halftime of a football game. I had to stay. There was an enormous amount that I wanted to know and hadn’t experienced. I didn’t feel I had the capacity to engage with many of the people I respected. I needed to understand more. I was in love with learning. I had a chalkboard next to my bed. I’d wake up and write down things that I still wanted to learn. I was motivated.

It was during my time as an undergrad that I met one of the most influential individuals in my life — Bruce Yandle. An economics faculty member at the time, Bruce went on to serve as dean in 2004. He suggested I get a master’s, but because of my previous academic record, I got rejected. I showed him the rejection letter and he offered to help. Bruce was a respected person on campus and he convinced those in charge to allow me to enter the master’s program on probation.

It’s so memorable for me, not because I was able to get into grad school, but because Bruce represented all that was great about this University. He knew I could do it and opened the door for me. His caring made a difference. It’s what differentiates us from other schools. We teach business well, but what distinguishes us is that our faculty, staff — the entire place — cares. I don’t know the origin of that deep sense of caring that people like Bruce Yandle and others have here. But it’s a daily thing at Clemson and a reason why this isn’t a job for me.

After I received a master’s degree in economics from Clemson, I got a fellowship at Texas A&M, where eventually I obtained my Ph.D. My early tenure as a faculty member at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) was invaluable. With the exceptional level of scholarship I was exposed to, it couldn’t have been a better place to be at that point in my life. But, eventually, Clemson would call me home again… and again.

What is your proudest moment as dean of business education at Clemson?

I received a phone call at 6:30 a.m., Montana time that went to voicemail. I didn’t expect it to be President Clements. He wanted to hire a rock star of a dean after Charles Watt retired and was looking for some help. My wife, Valerie, and I were mildly retired and thought that process would take about six weeks, and it would be fun to be interim dean. After all, we spend the football season back here anyway. Turns out, it would be the best part of my life’s journey, aside from my family, because I wasn’t concerned about losing my job or a paycheck. What I was concerned about was choosing the best path to serve the college. And, it did turn out to be fun. I just had to listen, think a little and talk to my mentors. The job mattered. The success and prosperity of 5,000 lives were affected by it. It was fulfilling to be part of something good. I was a part of it, but many others made it happen.

You made it clear from day one the students were your first priority and every decision you’ve made as dean reflects your dedication to their success. Are there any words of advice you’d like to pass along to our students?

Valerie and I enjoy Dinner with the Dean. We host undergraduates for dinner out and ask them a lot of questions. They pay for their meal by telling me about themselves. We break dinners up by the years students are in school. If you want to see what college is about, do that. Business students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors — they don’t remotely resemble one another. Their transformation over that span is amazing.

My advice is go to class and if you end up in a job that you don’t enjoy, quit it. Life is too short to drudge to work. I know we have financial responsibilities, but being in a position you enjoy can be the essence of one’s life. It has to be fun. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good. Find out who you are and what you want to be and don’t let anyone talk you out of it.

What is your prediction for the future of business education?

Higher education, for the first time ever, is going to be faced with disruption. So many industries have been disrupted, but not higher education. The process, blackboards to white boards wasn’t disruptive. Mail to email wasn’t either. Traditional learning is about to stop. The future of business education is more about how we use the tools of business and why we use the tools of business, than making the trains run on time.

Fact is, 18-year-old freshmen turn out responsible 4 to 5 years later. What happens in the middle, their maturation and resourcefulness, is more important than just the classroom experience. By and large the details of how we educate are not going to make them successful. Yes, financial reports have to be right. But more and more those processes are being automated. My prediction is that in 20 years it will be less about technical training and more about “how do I find a place in the business world where I wake up excited.” The future of business education will be about getting students into a state where they are capable of doing exciting things that enrich their lives and improve the human condition.

Any must-dos on your bucket list?

I’ve had a really good life. I’m excited about my future, but my bucket list is short. I’ve been to 49 states. I do want to get to Hawaii and will. Something I really want is a grandchild. I’ll definitely spoil them. This isn’t a bucket item, but I want the College of Business to make it to the top 10 in the country.

Here’s another one. There are 1,800 acres in Jasper County I wouldn’t mind owning for the sheer pleasure of being on a sandy knoll watching turkeys and deer. It’s adjacent to property my family owned near the town limits of Tillman S.C.

I have an agreement with my wife and son that upon my passing, carved in a rock, my epitaph will read, “When he was 16 years old, he drove a school bus.”

Years from now, what would you like people to say about Bobby McCormick’s contributions to Clemson?

Think about your relationship with your work partners. When good things happen look out the window, when bad things happen, look in mirror.

I would like for people to say he was part of a team that re-centered Clemson around business education. Clemson is putting a big emphasis around business education and the new building is about to become the centerpiece of the University.

There have been a lot of good people who have helped that happen, Jim Clements, Brett Dalton, Robert Jones, and next in line will be Wendy York. I’d like people to say, “and I think Bobby McCormick was there when it started, too.”

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