The first 10 years of James Clark’s education took place in segregated schools near Quincy, Fla.
His all-black school read from books that were passed down from the nearby all-white school.
His mother went to school up to the sixth grade, while his father left after second grade. They grew corn and tobacco and raised their children to embrace what they couldn’t.
“Even though there was a lot of hard work and segregated schools, education was a big deal, a big deal for my parents,” he said.
Clark doesn’t remember the details surrounding his older brothers’ college experiences, but he does recall that the entire community, including his church, gave pennies and as much money as they could spare to send them to college.
“I remember vaguely them coming home from a holiday and then going back and the place being shut down, boarded up,” Clark said. The school was closed because of fiscal mismanagement.
As a result, one of his brothers “ended up working the rest of his life at a state hospital in the kitchen — a generation lost because an academic institution was not managed properly,” Clark said.
His family’s story was part of Clark’s motivation to accept the presidency of S.C. State University in Orangeburg. He started on July 1 with a goal of making sure the historically black university moves on from the financial, enrollment, leadership and accreditation issues that have plagued it over the past few years.
Clark, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spent much of his career in the business sector, at AT&T, General Electric, Gillette and Exxon International, among others. He sees his experience in business, instead of academics, as exactly what the university needs.
“We’re in the business of educating our youth. Now when I say that, some academic individuals say, ‘Oh my goodness he used the word “business.” You cannot apply business here.’ But the reality is we are in the business,” Clark said. “Because if you don’t have your fiscal affairs in order, then you are at the edge. You come right up to the edge. We almost fell off the edge because some of our fiscal affairs were not in order.”
Clark will be paid about $255,000 a year in salary and other perks, such as housing, but he hasn’t made the move to Orangeburg. He commutes from Columbia and has a suite on campus that he stays in overnight occasionally.
One of his goals is to ensure all S.C. State graduates are highly sought-after by businesses or graduate schools. The university’s provost will evaluate classes and determine which are relevant to businesses’ needs, then cut those that aren’t and provide more support to those that are.
Clark also wants to create more partnerships and collaborations.
To help students enter S.C. State, he wants to connect with Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and other two-year colleges to streamline the process by which students move from an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree.
He plans to team up with Claflin University, another historically black university that is located next door to S.C. State, to “elevate the academic perspective in Orangeburg,” and he wants to come up with ways to collaborate with the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.
“There have been opportunities over the years that have been allowed to fall on the floor,” he said. “You probably can sense it — that’s just not my style.”
Clark said he wants to develop strong relationships with about a dozen S.C.-based companies to learn what they need from graduates, develop internships and create courses aligned to their needs.
Although its accreditation is no longer in jeopardy, the school is still in a financial exigency, which is similar to a financial emergency when terminating employees and shutting down are possibilities.
Clark said he will be adjusting each department’s budget, and layoffs should be expected. He didn’t provide a timeline, saying it will be up to department heads to decide whom they can afford to employ within their budgets.
“In a lot of places, we don’t have the right people. We don’t have the right players,” Clark said. “Now, some of those players may exist somewhere in another department, and then some people are just not cut out for the jobs they are in, in some cases. And some people are just not going to want to deal with the pace that I’m going to want to do.”
A boost in enrollment should help the budget. The number of first-year and transfer students is up 39% from the previous year to just over 800 this fall, and total enrollment is hovering around 2,900 students.
Clark said the school’s enrollment and financial aid processes are too difficult for parents and prospective students to navigate and will be reworked.
He also has started to “spruce the place up.” He decided to repaint the fire hydrants from faded yellow and white to the school’s red and blue colors; renovate two previously closed buildings into new dorms; and clean and reopen the pool.
His philosophy is to have a “bias for action,” and he said he wants to spend his time as president “going wide-open.”
“Hopefully I don’t pop a spring loose somewhere,” Clark said.
These stories originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.