July 12, 2014

Clemson President Barker troubled by Statehouse view of higher education

Clemson President James Barker (File)

Clemson President James Barker (File)

Clemson President James Barker is preparing to retire after fourteen years at one of the state’s top universities. He is currently one of the longest-serving college presidents in the U.S.

In a “state of higher education” address to  Clemson University trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders, he warned about  “a shift over the past decade in perceptions about higher education – both nationally and in the state — and some of these shifts concern me very much.”

Barker says priorities have changed from a decade ago when the state funded major research and state scholarships. He noted that between 2001 and 2007,  the South Carolina Legislature passed measures like the LIFE Scholarship, Palmetto Fellowship and SC Hope program and updates,  endowed chairs for the Research Centers of Economic Excellence (now SmartState), and the Research University Infrastructure Act.

“Today, we find ourselves in a very different position. It would be easy to blame the economic collapse – but the winds were shifting even before that. 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, ” he said.

Barker said lawmakers are not willing to invest in higher education: “We’re all proud of the state’s strong credit rating, but it is not being leveraged to bring campuses into the 21st century. The last bond bill for higher education in this state was 15 years ago.”

While Barker says the colleges must do their parts, he has a list of recommendations for lawmakers:

-First, we should never take the LIFE Scholarship, Palmetto Fellows and HOPE Scholars programs for granted. Keep supporting and funding them, so that we continue to keep our best and brightest students here in South Carolina. This program has had more positive impact on college participation and success than anything else the state has done

-Second, we need to decide what we want from higher education and reward institutions accordingly. A core principle of management is that what gets rewarded gets done.  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.Accountability-based funding is a good idea: We just need to stop talking about it and start doing it.

-Third, we need to give institutions the flexibility to control their own operations. We can have full accountability and transparency without going through multiple and often duplicative layers of approval. Clemson’s Enterprise legislation tries to strike a balance between flexibility and accountability while creating more management tools to be more cost-efficient.

-Fourth, make a commitment – through a higher education bond bill – to address aging infrastructure and provide 21st century research, teaching and learning technology, facilities and online distribution systems. Give us the tools to effectively teach students whether they are on campus or place-bound.

Click here to see the video of Barker’s speech.