President Barker speaks behind a podium.CLEMSON — By simple longevity in a presidential position, Clemson University President James Barker is one of the senior voices for higher education in South Carolina. And from that perspective, he’s calling for a return to the way things used to be.

“During the first half of my administration, state leaders saw higher education as a partner in economic prosperity,” Barker said. “They invested significant state resources in higher education programs that would produce good, high-paying jobs, increase per capita income of the people of the state, drive economic growth. They saw higher education as a pathway to that kind of future.”

In a keynote address on the state of higher education today to trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, legislators, business leaders and volunteers, he noted the rapid changes in higher education and state needs as a result of global economic pressure, demographic forces, technology and increasing competition in both academics and economic development.

“Higher education can and should be leading the way in finding solutions to these kinds of problems. We’ve done it before,” he said. “During my 14 years as president of Clemson, I have watched the progress that can be made when the state and higher education work together.”

Clemson’s president cited such major legislative initiatives in the early part of the century as LIFE Scholarship, Palmetto Fellowship and SC Hope programs; the Economic Development Bond Act, which provided some of the earliest funding for CU-ICAR; Research Centers of Excellence to recruit world-class faculty into research areas that support economic development; and several acts enhancing infrastructure.

“These legislative initiatives were game-changers,” he said. “They made South Carolina more competitive for top industries, top students and top faculty.

“We need to find a way to return to the era where the relationship between higher education and the state was defined by collaboration and partnership. We must work together to forge a partnership that meets the education and innovation needs of the state and fits the current economic times.”

Barker offered a formula for change for state leaders:

  • First, keep supporting the LIFE Scholarship, Palmetto Fellows and HOPE Scholars programs.
  • Second, support the concept of accountability-based funding to reward institutions for achieving desired outcomes. “If we want academic quality, higher retention and graduation rates, measurable contributions to economic development, graduates who can get jobs or get into top professional and graduate schools — then that’s what we should fund,” he said.
  • Third, give institutions the flexibility to control their own operations while maintaining full accountability and transparency back to the state.
  • Fourth, pass a higher education bond bill to address aging infrastructure and provide 21st century research, teaching and learning technology and facilities.

“Now, I realize that higher education has an equal share of the responsibility for change,” he said, challenging colleges and universities to collaborate more and compete less, focus on their core missions, increase degree-completion rates, and be responsible stewards of state and students resources.

“If we want South Carolina to be a winner in the new economy — and I believe we all want that — we must be willing to invest in higher education — as we have done in the past,” he said.

“Today, more than ever, South Carolina needs for its colleges and universities to be change agents to drive prosperity and economic development.

“My key message today is to recognize that this new economy, this new normal does not require a new relationship, it requires a return to the old one: a true partnership between the state and higher education based on trust, mutual respect and the recognition that neither of us can achieve our goals without the other.”

Barker knows from experience that South Carolina would benefit from the change to a “can-do” attitude.

“When I took on this job, we banished the words ‘South Carolina is a small, poor state.’ Why?  Because South Carolina is a small state, but we need not be poor,” he said.

“South Carolina is rich in human potential, rich in history and culture, rich in natural beauty. Let us strive to add to that list: “rich in excellent schools that help students compete and achieve success.”

The full text of Barker’s speech is posted online.


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