COLUMBIA — After spending 14 years building Clemson University, president Jim Barker is ready to go back to his first love – architecture.
Barker announced in a video message to students and faculty Tuesday that he is stepping down as president to become a teacher at Clemson, but will lead the university until trustees pick his replacement.
Barker, 65, had emergency heart surgery in January to bypass five blockages, but said he is in good health and felt like it was the right time to hand off leadership of the university to someone else.
“I see this as a change in major for me, going from president to professor,” said Barker, who received his undergraduate degree in architecture from Clemson in 1970.
Barker made his decision to ride off into the sunset while watching old westerns like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” as he recovered from his surgery.
Barker initially planned to be president for just 10 years. But that mark hit in 2009 at the depths of Great Recession and as state funding for the school plunged. Barker cut administration and staff by 12 percent without layoffs and is leaving the school on solid financial footing.
He realized that now might be the best time to teach architecture, something he never did in his career because he went into administration.
“I’m not ready to retire now. My wife and I would go crazy. I am just shifting my energy into the classroom,” Barker said before he testified before a state Senate panel considering Clemson’s budget.
Barker became president in 1999 and worked to improve the university’s academics. The school said half of its 2009 freshman class graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school. Clemson increased its enrollment during Barker’s tenure from about 17,000 students to nearly 21,000 students.
But some questioned Barker’s methods to improve Clemson’s standing in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Barker once rated Clemson above every other school in the nation.
Barker gave his own university a “strong” rating in the peer review survey portion of the rankings but gave no other university that high a mark. He also ranked half the undergraduate universities in the magazine’s survey as “marginal.” He explained his decision by saying he thought Clemson’s “in-classroom, out-of-classroom, college-town experience” topped every other school in the nation.
That kind of attitude wasn’t too surprising from a man who always loved his alma mater. Barker dressed up as the Tiger mascot at a 2008 Clemson football game, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd when he pulled off the mascot head and held it above his head after doing pushups following a touchdown. Barker ended his 21/2-minute address to students and faculty with “Go Tigers!”
Barker liked to back tangible ideas for his school. One of his biggest projects, Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research, is designing the car of the future. The school’s latest project is a $100 million initiative to test power generating wind turbines in North Charleston. Clemson hopes the research will help South Carolina lead in what could be an emerging alternative power source.
Barker told trustees about his plans to step aside last week. He said he promised to help Clemson’s 15th president make the transition into office. Barker suggested a new president should be in place within six months, but trustees have not discussed whether they have a timetable to hire a new leader or how they will conduct their search.
Board of Trustees Chairman David Wilkins said Clemson is a far better place thanks to Barker’s leadership.
“We know that there is no replacing Jim Barker, only succeeding him,” said Wilkins, who was a fraternity buddy of Barker when they were students at Clemson.
Barker also was praised by Gov. Nikki Haley, a 1994 Clemson graduate who became the first governor to get her undergraduate degree from the school since Strom Thurmond.
“President Barker has given tremendous service to our state, he has been a transformative leader for Clemson, and he leaves the university better than he found it,” Haley’s spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
Barker also shaped the school’s athletics. He backed major athletic expansions, even if the school’s teams did not reach his lofty goals when he came into office of a national championship in football, two Final Fours in basketball and two national championships in Olympic sports.
He didn’t want to talk about his legacy Tuesday, but did said that returning to architecture makes sense after being the university’s president because that position involves being able to see the big picture among a number of parts.
“I think architectural education taught me how to do that,” Barker said. “That’s what an architect does. You have all kinds of consultants and engineers and all these parts and pieces have to go together to make a great project.”