Office of the President

President’s Leadership Institute launches fifth year with new challenges and opportunities during COVID-19 pandemic


As the President’s Leadership Institute (PLI) enters its fifth year with a new cohort, Clemson University is in the midst of the most disruptive time in its history.

“Leadership development and investing in faculty and staff are needed now, more than ever,” said Kyra Lobbins, the deputy chief of staff who is making plans for a new PLI cohort in the fall. “PLI is all about preparing future Clemson and higher ed leaders for the challenges that are yet to come.”

Kyra Lobbins

The President’s Leadership Institute is a nine-month leadership development program that invests, supports and develops professional and personal leadership in a diverse community of faculty and staff at Clemson. The institute enables participants to build individual effectiveness, understand the power of critical thinking and communication and embrace their own ability to lead.

PLI participants learn about the University’s structure and landscape from President Clements, other leaders and each other; explore issues and opportunities facing Clemson and higher education; are exposed to perspectives of Clemson’s impact on the state, national and international level; and have dialogue and discussion on topics important to Clemson, its environment and constituents.

“As a leader, I have always felt it was my duty to help the next generation of leaders develop to their full potential,” said President Jim Clements. “We are facing challenges in higher education that we have never faced before, so this year’s PLI cohort will definitely have a unique experience. We have an outstanding group, and I look forward to working with them.”

Each PLI cohort is composed of 25 faculty and staff members who have demonstrated exceptional performance in their areas. Nominations are submitted by senior administrators and selected by President Clements. He told them to nominate candidates who have the potential to replace them one day. “’I want the next ‘you,’” Lobbins quoted him as telling them.

That approach appears to be working.

“To date, we have had four classes – a total of 100 employees – complete the program,” Lobbins stated. “Of the 100 employees, 42 people have secured a new position or title and/or inherited more responsibility, oversight or advancement.”

“My participation in PLI gave me a level of confidence to take on new responsibilities of leadership and gave me opportunities for professional development,” said Kimberly Poole, a 2016 PLI graduate who is senior associate dean of students and director of the Office of Advocacy and Success. “It also helped me build relationships with colleagues that allow us to collaborate across campus to help students.”

“A few PLI highlights that stand out for me were participating in multiple team-building exercises, meeting Jeff Davis and learning about P.A.W. Journey and going down the slide in the football facility!” said Brian Callahan, Extension’s director of County Operations & Logistics and a member of the 2018 cohort. “On a more personal note, I appreciated the numerous opportunities to get to know new colleagues and friends through interactive experiences like our service day session.”

“The program runs in such a way that you truly get an inside look into the University and the leadership on so many levels,” said John Whitcomb, a nursing professor who was in the 2018 PLI cohort and who recently was named Faculty Senate president.

“The opportunity to hear from speakers with such vast backgrounds and leadership styles, helps individuals look within themselves for future development,” Whitcomb said. “It also demonstrates leadership is an important aspect of service to the community – participating in outreach programs and philanthropy. You can always learn more about yourself through leadership experiences.”

Senior chemistry lecturer Tania Houjeiry participates in the 2019 PLI cohort.
Senior chemistry lecturer Tania Houjeiry participates in the 2019 PLI cohort.

While many universities have historically cut or frozen professional development training during trying times, President Clements decided it is very important that Clemson continues to invest in its people. Lobbins is making plans to move the next PLI cohort forward and is working on various face-to-face meetings and events beginning in August and developing online content if that becomes necessary. When Clemson moved classes online and ended in-person activities in the spring, the last two PLI classes of the 2019-20 class were held virtually.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced University leaders to make changes to ensure the safety of students, employees and visitors when they return to campus. Recent national events also have brought to the forefront the difficult and necessary conversations about race and equality in America.

The subject of diversity and inclusion at Clemson has been the topic of one day’s PLI session in previous years.

“Diversity and inclusion are always present,” Lobbins said, “but this year we’re going to be more deliberate about it. We’re going to dig a little deeper into that; challenge perceptions. We also recognize the pandemic is real and will take all necessary precautions to keep everyone safe.”

She looks forward to welcoming another group of smart, talented people into the PLI.

“I feel like every year we’re going to get a group that challenges us even more,” she said. “At the end of the program, they grow, and as they do so I grow, too. Because I’m learning as well.”

Then, “I see the passion at the end of the year,” Lobbins said. “There’s this thirst and eagerness to do more after the program. It’s really special to see.”

If you are interested in learning more about PLI, contact Lobbins at

2020-2021 Cohort

Drew Lanham
Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology
Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department

Thompson Mefford
Associate Professor
Materials Science and Engineering

Natasha Croom
Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs
College of Education

Mariela Fernandez
Assistant Professor
College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

Carter McElveen
Senior Lecturer; Alumni Master Teacher
College of Business

Lori Dickes
Associate Professor; Associate Chair
College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

Suzanne Rook Schilf
Head of Information & Research Services
Clemson University Libraries

Valerie Zimany
Chair and Associate Professor, Ceramics
Department of Art

Kevin Finneran
Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

Sean Brittain
Department Chair and Professor of Astronomy
Physics and Astronomy

Allison Whaley
University Ombudsman for Staff

Nalinee Patin
IRB Administrator
Research Compliance

Serita Acker
Executive Director of PEER & WISE
College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Liliana Gehring
Chief of Strategy and Operations
College of Science

Amber Lange
Executive Director College Preparation and Outreach
Inclusion and Equity

Kryssa Cooper
Director of Corporate & Community Relations
Student Affairs

Laura Stoner
Director, Land and Capital Asset Stewardship
Real Estate Development

Lee Currington
Director of Business Continuty & Disaster Recovery

Liz Bartges
Director of Digital Strategy
University Relations Marketing

Tommy Fallaw
Director of Landscaping and Custodial Services
Landscape Services

Jon Clayton
Executive Customer Success Manager

Jonathan Gantt
Marketing & Public Relations Executive

Steve Warner
Associate Vice President for Corporate Partnerships
Clemson University Restoration Institute

Steve Cole
Director of Regulatory & Public Service Programs
Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives

Kyle Shields
Director of Premium Seating/Major Gifts Officer



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