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New president leading S.C. State University with business mindset

Ashley Heffernan
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James Clark’s first day as president of S.C. State University was July 1. The Columbia resident previously worked at AT&T, General Electric, Gillette and Exxon International. He was also a member of the university’s board of trustees before becoming president. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

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.

The James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center at S.C. State University includes three vehicle bays and offices. The center will reopen this semester for students in the master’s in transportation program. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

S.C. State University reapplies for federal transportation funds

S.C. State University in Orangeburg is looking to earn a University Transportation Center designation again, something the school lost several years ago after not fulfilling all federal requirements.

The U.S. Department of Transportation gives funding to certain universities that provide education, research and workforce development opportunities in advanced transportation. S.C. State’s James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center was a Tier I center for years until the designation was removed on Dec. 31, 2009.

Now the university is reapplying for the designation.

“We slipped as a university on that, and now we’re revisiting all the things that we need to be doing to get ourselves back elevated as one of the few transportation centers around the nation, because the transportation industry is a big one here in this state,” S.C. State President James Clark said.

The center is still on the campus; however, its offices and three vehicle bays, where researchers were expected to work on automotive engines, have been sitting empty for some time. Clark expects the building to reopen this semester for students in the master’s in transportation program, regardless of the DOT designation.

Elbert Malone, associate provost for sponsored programs and research, is overseeing the DOT application and expects a decision in late September or early October. The school’s proposal is for $1.2 million per year, which includes some matching funds that would be used to hire new professors, provide student scholarships and buy more transportation-related equipment for research.

Some federal grants require the designation just to apply. So if S.C. State earns the designation again, more grant opportunities would likely open up.

“For us to really be competitive, it’s really good to have that designation,” Malone said. “There’s no question about it.”

Part of the research on which the university will focus is intelligent transportation systems, such as vehicles that brake or park on their own. Malone sees an added bonus in the Volvo Cars campus being built in nearby Berkeley County and Mercedes-Benz Vans’ campus construction in Charleston County.

The center could test intelligent transportation systems for the companies and train their employees and their future workforces, he said. The university could also benefit by having students complete internships at the manufacturers’ facilities.

“I’m very confident we’re going to get it,” Malone said. “Anytime we submit a proposal, we think we’re going to get it. But I do realize it is competitive.”

“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.

S.C. State President James Clark scrubs the side of the university’s pool as lifeguard and pool operator Marcellus Rice looks on. The pool was temporarily shut down because of budget cuts and is being cleaned up so swimming classes and sessions can resume. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

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.

Reach Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144.

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