UMBC alumnus James P. Clements, ’85 computer science and ’91 M.S. and ’93 Ph.D., operations analysis, ascends to the summit of West Virginia University.
By Richard Byrne ’86
According to Google Maps, it takes a little over three hours to get from Catonsville to Morgantown, West Virginia.
For James P. Clements, ’85 computer science and ’91 M.S. and ’93 Ph.D., operations analysis, the journey has taken a little bit longer than that – about 27 years, in fact.
But the destination has been worth the drive, which also took detours through The Johns Hopkins University (where he took an M.S. in computer science in 1988) and Towson University, where he has served as provost and vice president for academic affairs for the past two years. On June 30, Clements will arrive in Morgantown to become West Virginia University’s 23rd president.
“I’m really excited,” Clements told UMBC Magazine in a recent interview. “I’m on the phone with them every day. On the weekends, I’m having discussions. I already have a couple visits planned.”
Clements also has fond memories of his time in Catonsville: “I loved everything about my undergraduate and graduate education at UMBC.”
It’s not hard to see why West Virginia University tapped Clements for the school’s top position. His career as a scholar and researcher took wing quickly after he received his Ph.D. from UMBC in 1993. He was tenured at Towson University only two years after receiving his doctorate. Six years later, he was named to lead Towson’s Center for Applied Information Technology. And in 2002, he was named Robert W. Deutsch Distinguished Professor of Information Technology.
His ascent in academic leader has been even more dizzying – a rapid itinerary that included stints as vice president of Towson’s Economic and Community Outreach division, as provost, and a key roles in devising and monitoring that university’s 2010 Strategic Plan.
Clements says that the first strides of his time on the fast track began at UMBC. Like many students of his era, he chose UMBC for factors of proximity and cost – and found an unexpectedly rich academic experience in Catonsville.
“My parents didn’t go to college,” he says. “My brother and two sisters, we were the first generation to go to college. We didn’t have a lot of money. There weren’t a lot of options. It was: ‘Where do you want to go in-state? And you’re going to be a commuter, because we don’t have the money, really, to let you live on the campus.’ So I really looked at UMBC and Towson, which are both great places. But for what I wanted at the time, which was computer science, UMBC was a great choice. The program was excellent. The professors were great.”
Clements says that he realized the quality of the education he got when he went out into the workforce. “When I came out, and went to work for industry – I worked for a company called General Physics, which is run by Robert W. Deutsch, who has been very generous to UMBC – I felt so prepared. I was working with people who’d been at some of the top institutions in the country, and I felt that I had an equal level of education to anyone in that building.”
The allure of the workforce and the chance to make money in the computer science field, which was burgeoning in the mid-1980s, did not sidetrack Clements from his dream of becoming a professor.
“My very first class at UMBC as a college freshman was a U.S. history class,” Clements recalls. “I walked into the class, I sat down, and the professor walked in. And it was like some great light went off. Then I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a professor. And I had never before that very minute even thought about it. Never really knew what professor was. What they did. But this person came in, and started talking to the class, and started teaching us things. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew wanted to go into higher education.”
Clements worked hard to make that dream a reality. “I started right away on graduate school,” he says. “I didn’t take a semester off.” But he did so at nights and on weekends as he joined the workforce – at one point even cutting a deal with his employer for reduced hours to obtain his Ph.D. at UMBC.
In a happy coincidence, Clements received his Ph.D. from UMBC on the same day – and in the same ceremony – that his brother Joseph H. Clements, Jr.’85 computer science and M.S and Ph.D., mathematics, received his doctorate. “We were side-by-side on the stage,” he recalls. “It was one of my mother and father’s happiest days.”
When Clements did finally end up in academia as a professor at Towson University, Clements says that he found it to be “probably the best job in the world. I love to teach. I love writing papers. I love doing research. I love working with the students.”
Yet he soon acquired the itch to try his hand at administration. It was exigency, rather than ambition, that lured Clements into academic leadership. In fact, he recalls, it came down to a lack of money for pencils and software and travel.
“When I was a junior faculty member, we didn’t have a lot of resources at the institution,” Clements says. “Once, I went to my administrative assistant and said, ‘Hey, can you order some pencils for me? I like the mechanical pencils.’ And the statement was: ‘Hey, we don’t have any money. You can only order the traditional-style pencils.’ Then I also said, ‘I need some software to do my research.’ And I was told, ‘We don’t have a lot of money to buy software for you to do your research.’ I remember going to a couple conferences to present papers, and the conference might cost $1000, and the university might give me $200. And I was, like, ‘Wow, this is costing me a lot out of pocket for me to do what is essentially my job.’
“All of a sudden,” Clements continues, “I took the view that I wanted to get into administration, so that I could bring resources to the campus. So I can help those faculty and students who follow me get the software that they need, or the computers that they need, or the research infrastructure they need, or the travel money they need.
Clements discovered that he had a knack for the coordination and fundraising that goes along with academic leadership – and also that he liked it. And those talents led him all the way to Morgantown.
The challenges of being president of any flagship state university are immense. They’ve been made even more difficult at West Virginia because of a scandal involving the improper awarding of a degree that rocked the university and forced the resignation of its president Michael S. Garrison last year.
Clements acknowledges those unique challenges in his new job. He also points to the success of West Virginia University’s interim president, C. Peter Magrath, in tackling the immediate fallout from the scandal as a springboard to his own efforts.
Clements says that Magrath’s status as “an icon in higher education” and a calming force” in Morgantown “has really given me an opportunity to come in and say, as I did when I interviewed on the campus: ‘WVU has been around since 1867. It has a great history. It’s going to have a great future. We just have to get past where we’ve been stuck right now and think about who we want to be in 10 and 20 years down the road.
“And then it becomes fun,” Clements continues. “Let’s start looking forward. And that certainly seemed to resonate well with the campus. They don’t want to be stuck in the headlines that they’ve read for the past two years. They want to move forward.”
Looking back at UMBC from across more than two decades (and across town from his perch at Towson University), Clements says he feels a lot of pride and appreciation at the growth of his alma mater over that time.
“Let me put it this way, every time I see [UMBC’s president Freeman A. Hrabowski, III], I thank him for raising the value of my degree,” Clements says with a laugh. “It’s true. Freeman is so dynamic and so charismatic. And it’s not just him. The institution has great faculty members. Great administrators. It has just continued to climb up and up and up. And for me, even though I work at Towson, I love UMBC. It’s been great watching it skyrocket into one of the hottest universities in the country.
“Trust me, when West Virginia called me, and I sent them my materials,” continues Clements, “and it has ‘UMBC: An Honors University in Maryland’ on it, with a president that everyone in the world knows, that helps me… It’s helped the region. Everyone is proud of UMBC.”
Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of UMBC Magazine