FEATURES • Spring 2002

Using what he learned as an architecture graduate student at Washington University, James F. Barker presides over Clemson University—building plans and coalitions for its future successes.

By Betsy Rogers

It might just be that Clemson University, in naming James F. Barker its 14th president in 1999, discovered a new truth—that the mind of an architect is an invaluable asset in university management.

"Studying architecture was the best preparation I can imagine for handling the responsibilities I have now," says Barker, M.A.U.D. '73. "Architecture education is one of the last renaissance educations available. My education at Washington University was as much about poetry as it was about plumbing—and that's the job of a university president, to know a little about a lot of different things.

Barker notes also that architects are team builders. "The way you put together a team to do a building is the same way you put together a team to guide a university. It requires creativity and the ability to communicate. It tries to bring out the best in people."

Barker has become famous on the Clemson campus for his distinctive communication style. "I keep creating these diagrams—I always carry around a magic marker," says Barker. "There's a lot of diagramming and sketching that relates to how different colleges can work together, for instance, or how athletics and academics can build bridges between the two areas." He says reducing a complex idea to graphic form is an effective way to clarify issues.

And it's contagious: He says he now finds his colleagues across campus, from biologists to lawyers, doing the same thing.

His building skills have certainly helped this venerable South Carolina institution rise through the ranks of peer universities. Consider:

• The university has nearly doubled research funding in just two years.

• Always strong in science and engineering, Clemson is one of the top 25 universities in the nation in income from intellectual property, including an industry-standard artificial hip joint, two of which help keep the Queen Mother of England spry at age 101.

Timemagazine named Clemson the "Public College of the Year" in 2001, based in part on its innovative "communication across the curriculum" program to teach English and communication skills to students in every discipline.

 


 

The designer and builder in him emerge often. While Barker was dean of the College of Architecture, a position he held from 1986 to 1999, Clemson's trustees mandated a radical reorganization, reducing nine colleges to four in an effort to encourage campus-wide communication, collaboration, and interaction between faculty and students.

There was resistance to the proposal at first—including his own. "But then I became fascinated," he continues. "The designer in me took over, and I started to see what's possible. You get a chance to create something from scratch. I couldn't possibly pass up that opportunity!

"Every professional school was given a partnership with the arts and sciences or the core curriculum units that most closely allied with it," Barker explains. "Physical sciences were joined with engineering, the life sciences with agriculture, and social sciences with business." His college linked up with the arts and the humanities. "It's a whole new model of education," he adds.

Barker says the restructuring has succeeded beyond everyone's imagining. "It has positioned us well in terms of research," he notes. "It has caused all the deans to have a stake in general education, and it has basically made the campus much more collaborative than it was before."

Collaborations have indeed sprung up across campus and borne remarkable fruit in the five years since the reorganization. The National Science Foundation awarded Clemson one of only 20 prestigious national research centers—the only one in the area of fibers and film—because, as Barker explains, "they were impressed that there were that many disciplines that could be readily drawn upon in one college—all the chemistry and physics and mathematics together with all the engineers. We would not have gotten that center, I don't believe, if we had not had this structure in place."

In his own college, an effort to find common interests between fields as disparate as construction science and philosophy led to a course in construction ethics and then a center for ethics studies.

"The university is a seamless place when you look at it abstractly," Barker observes, "and these walls we build between disciplines are artificial. We are reaping some remarkable benefits. It's a much more energetic place."

Clemson is clearly energized as well by a 10-year plan that Barker, other administrators, and the faculty developed. Ambitious and far-reaching, the plan calls for major strides in academics and research, campus life, student performance, educational resources, and the university's national reputation. The trustees approved the plan in January 2001, and already the pieces are falling into place.

"There are some very positive things we can point to," Barker notes. "Being named 'public college of the year' was an amazing step forward for us." The dramatic increase in research funding is another. And $100 million in construction is under way.

"We produced a plan," Barker explains. "When you have a plan—this is the architect creeping back in here—then you can make it happen."

 


 

It is perhaps no accident that Barker, presiding over the 17,000-student Clemson community, is an expert on the American small town. Barker received his undergraduate architecture degree at Clemson in 1970 and came to St. Louis to study urban design at Washington University in 1972. With a graduate degree under his belt, he moved to Mississippi to teach at Mississippi State University and began applying what he had learned about urban design to Mississippi's beautiful courthouse square towns. His work led to sabbatical research at Cambridge University, studying English villages and comparing them to American towns.

It's an expertise he continues to share in the classroom, offering a course titled the Nature and Character of the American Small Town. His mission is to help preserve these communities' unique attributes. "The small town environment is seen as the epitome of sense of place and a sense of community," he observes. "Today, most of us are electronically connected, so we can live in our choice of communities. Small towns are growing since they have always been America's first choice. They're not prepared for that growth. The very essence of place and community that people seek could be lost." Barker has published two books and a number of articles on the subject.

Barker places great value on his master's education at Washington University. Though he was only enrolled for one intensive 12-month program, he says he found the intellectual environment very stimulating and wonderful preparation for his career. "I was able to teach during my second semester," he explains, "which kindled my interest. It opened doors to my first teaching position. I'm genuinely grateful for the quality of the education I received—it had a profound impact."

Teaching remains his great enthusiasm. "Sooner or later," he muses about his future, "I'll come to my senses. My desire is to finish my career at Clemson as a faculty member in the architecture school."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tillman Hall is the focal point in the middle of Clemson's campus. President Barker can see the building with its signature clock tower from his office window.

 

 

 

 

In addition to his responsibilities as president, James Barker also teaches a course on small towns, Nature and Character of the American Small Town. He hopes to finish his career at Clemson as a faculty member in the architecture school.