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.
It’s not hard to see why West Virginia University tapped Clements, whose 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.
His ascent in academic leadership has been even more dizzying – including stints as vice president of Towson’s Economic and Community Outreach division, as provost, and a key role 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.
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.”
A job in industry after his graduation in 1985 did not sidetrack Clements from his dream of becoming a professor, however. “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 – 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, he 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. 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. He credits West Virginia University’s interim president, C. Peter Magrath, for calming the waters before his arrival. “That 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.’”
Looking back at UMBC from across more than two decades (and across town from his perch at Towson University), Clements feels a lot of pride and appreciation at the growth of his alma mater.
“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.”