President’s Update: COVID-19 testing strategy proving successful; record retention and graduation rates reported

October 23, 2020

Dear Clemson Family:

We are now more than a month into our return to some on-campus instruction and activities, and our aggressive testing strategy continues to pay dividends. Our ability to quickly identify and isolate those infected or exposed to COVID-19 has allowed us to slow the spread of the virus as our latest testing data reflects.

As Dr. Corey Kalbaugh, the leader of our public health strategy team, told our Board of Trustees today, we have conducted more tests than virtually any other university in the country. As a result, the current prevalence rate for COVID among our students is down to about 1 percent and we’re only using 15 percent of our identified quarantine and isolation space on campus.

To further strengthen our testing regimen, our high-capacity saliva testing lab came on line this week. When fully operational, we expect to able to process 5,000 of these non-invasive, reliable and inexpensive tests a day, with same-day results. We are deeply appreciative of Gov. McMaster and the South Carolina Joint Bond Review Committee for their support of nearly $7 million in funding to assist in the development of this lab.

In addition to serving our students and employees, the lab – which is being led by Dr. Delphine Dean, the Ron and Jane Lindsay Professor of Bioengineering – eventually will allow the University to help support the testing needs of the Upstate region, as well as other higher education institutions in the state. This sort of commitment is consistent with Clemson’s long-standing service mission as a land-grant university.

University to revert to online-only instruction after Thanksgiving

We announced yesterday that, after significant consultation with the University’s COVID-19 public health strategy team and our external health consultants, we will revert to online-only instruction following the Thanksgiving holiday for the final two weeks of the Fall semester. The final day of in-person instruction will be Tuesday, Nov. 24.

This decision will greatly reduce the likelihood of students reintroducing the virus into the community when they return from the holidays. In doing so, we expect far less need to quarantine or isolate students during final examination period and the start of the year-end holidays.

The University is strongly encouraging all students to not return to campus or the surrounding community following the Thanksgiving break. On-campus resident students and unlimited meal plan holders who do not return to campus will receive a credit or refund for the unused portions of their housing and dining contracts

As announced last week, the University’s academic calendar for the Spring semester remains unchanged at this point. As we approach the Spring semester, we will provide specific guidance about how to prepare for our return to campus in January.

We want to thank our faculty, staff and students who have worked so hard this semester to make it possible for Clemson to offer some in-person instruction and on-campus activities. It is our hope that this decision will provide a strong foundation for a successful Spring semester.

Discovery work continues at Woodland Cemetery

The University has completed ground-penetrating radar testing of Woodland Cemetery on our main campus designed to determine the possible presence of unmarked graves. The survey work has located 604 possible unmarked graves throughout much of the cemetery, including a dozen at the crest of the hill inside a fenced area where members of the John C. Calhoun family were buried starting in 1837.

The number of graves, coupled with the locations, suggest the possibility that some may pre-date the period when the land was part of Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation from 1830 to 1865. Many of the graves are thought to be those of enslaved people who worked at the plantation and later as sharecroppers and Black laborers, including convicted individuals involved in the construction of Clemson College from 1890 to 1915.

Dr. Rhondda Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson whose research and teaching focuses on early African-American literature and culture, is working with the local African-American community. She formed a Citizens Advisory Council with members representing Clemson/Central, Anderson, Pendleton and Seneca areas to help guide Clemson in the preservation and memorialization of the site. She also is working with the local community to identify family members who may have ancestors buried in the unmarked graves.

University Historian Dr. Paul Anderson leads the research work. All of his team’s findings are published to a website Clemson created to document the University’s role in Woodland Cemetery and give voice to the African Americans who are buried there.  

Graduation, retention rates at all-time highs

At our quarterly Board of Trustees meeting today, I shared some incredible news about the work we are doing to attract, retain and graduate our students.

  • The University’s 6-year graduation rate of 85 percent is an all-time high and is one of the very best in the country among public universities.
  • Our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of 94 percent for this year also is a record and is 20 percentage points higher than national average.
  • Our class of approximately 4,200 new incoming students is 300 above last year’s total and is especially impressive given the challenges many other universities are seeing due to the pandemic. Indeed, in a recent survey by the American Council on Education, 55 percent of universities reported lower enrollment this year.

These data points, along with others such as the continuing growth of our students winning national scholarships, confirm that the “Power of the Paw” has never been stronger. Not only do we continue to attract great students, but once they arrive they are happy, supported and they excel.

None of this is possible, of course, without the work of our outstanding faculty and staff – and the continued support of our alumni and friends across the country. Thanks to all of you for making Clemson a special place.

Go Tigers!


Clemson University's 15th president, James P. Clements