Photo of Frankie FelderPerseverance has been a guiding principle in the life of Frankie Felder from her days as one of the first black undergraduates to integrate Virginia Commonwealth University to being the first African-American to serve as dean at Clemson University when she came to the campus in 1987.

“At the time that I came to Clemson, I immediately realized we had an opportunity here because we were so far behind in terms of what was happening nationally in graduate education, international education and diversity. There was work to be done at Clemson and I made a conscious decision to stay here because I felt Clemson needed someone here not afraid to engage the cultural environment.”

Felder currently serves as senior associate dean in the Graduate School where she is responsible for the analysis and revision of academic policies and procedures of the Graduate School, as well as for management of numerous of the Graduate School’s committees including the Graduate Academic Grievance, Graduate Academic Integrity and Graduate Admissions and Continuing Enrollment Appeals committees.

She further is charged to develop diversity initiatives. Felder guides students, faculty and administrators on matters related to graduate academic progress, policies and standards. For four years she also chaired the Minority Graduate Education Committee of the GRE Board, the committee, which represents the voice of graduate deans in evaluating and monitoring the research, services and activities of the GRE program as they affect minority and international students.

The senior associate dean has brought a wealth of ideas that have made a better Clemson from her first assignment of initiating processes and programs to internationalize the university and strategically growing the amount of diverse domestic and international students pursuing graduate degrees at Clemson to her more current focus on monitoring the academic success of all graduate master’s and doctoral students. The first grant she wrote on behalf of Clemson’s Graduate School became the model for how the U.S. Department of Education trained other colleges and universities to apply for funding to support minority graduate students. She received the Executive Vice President’s Outstanding Staff Award in December 2015.

Pursuing her passion

Felder has long had a passion for education; particularly graduate education and research. It was a discovery she made as a graduate student at Harvard University. Inspired by the power of education, she specifically decided to pursue a career in academic affairs.

“Education opens doors that we do not even know are there. It’s not so much about me trying to educate somebody else. I believe it is about me helping to educate others that they have to educate themselves. Education is such a critical component of who we can become. It is a very important key to our success.”

Growth, diversity and opportunity

The commitment to encouraging student success guided Felder, Jerry Knighton, director of the Office of Access and Equity, and retired chief diversity officer Leon Wiles in the work of founding the Clemson Minority Student Success Initiative (MSSI; in 2011, a mentoring and networking initiative aimed at equipping Clemson minority students with knowledge and resources to help them be successful on campus and after graduation. Supported by the Office of the President, Clemson MSSI brings individuals and programs to campus every month to speak to interested students on a variety of topics from wealth building to career preparation.

“One of the best attended events we have annually is co-sponsored with the Clemson Black Alumni Council at homecoming. The alumni appreciate the event and the opportunity it affords to talk to currently enrolled students. Those connections are important because it helps young people walking around here now know that while the challenges may be intense today, when some of these alumni were here, it was intense for them, too. The point is that they made it through and they convincingly tell current students that they will be successful also.”

Diversity has been a consistent part of Felder’s work and she says that in order to understand the challenges we must understand the definition.

“We are a diverse campus if you look at our growth internationally. One area where we have struggled is being responsive to the domestic issue of diversity, specifically African-American, Hispanic and Native American student enrollment, compared to the population within the state and the region.”

According to 2014 U.S. Census Data, the African-American population in South Carolina is 27.8 percent. The African-American student population at Clemson is about 6 percent. Under Dr. Felder’s leadership, Clemson has been highly successful in building a track record of recruiting and graduating African-American doctoral students. She believes despite the challenges that this moment in history is a promising one for Clemson.

“When Clemson decides Clemson is going to change, Clemson will change,” she said. “I believe Clemson is on the cusp of change. I think we have sincerity in our new administration in both the provost and the president. I believe that this kind of cultural change we are seeking at an institution as big as Clemson must have leadership and clear messages from the top. That means the senior administrative leadership, the academic leadership and our board of trustees. Clemson can be a better place for all of us if we can determine how to sit down together and craft how this university will serve everyone.”