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It is all academic for this college president

When John Clark offers to give the “War and Peace” version of his life prior to becoming interim president of SUNY College at Brockport, he means it.
Clark, who turned 54 last week, has had a diverse career working in such sectors as the military, social work, Wall Street and now college administration.
But all along, Clark wanted to be a college professor. While working in finance, he thought he might eventually teach a course somewhere part time when he retired.
Being the chief administrator, albeit a temporary one, for a state college, is closer than he thought he would ever get to his dream.
“You are looking at a frustrated academic,” Clark says, a wide smile on his face, as he sits in his office on the seventh floor of the SUNY Brockport administration building.
His most recent career was born from the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.
A continual part-time student, Clark received his doctorate in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College in May 2001. His investment banking office-Clark at the time was senior vice president of public finance for Ramirez & Co. LLC-was two blocks from the World Trade Center.
He lost colleagues in the Sept. 11 tragedy and, like many New Yorkers, felt a powerful impact from the events of that day.
“I said to my wife, ‘You know, now’s the time to think of quality-of-life issues,'” he says.
Clark’s banking practice involved relationships with folks in public finance, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York Power Authority and the state Dormitory Authority. He began talking to people he knew about what types of work might be available for someone with his expertise.
“Someone finally noticed I had a doctorate in education,” Clark says. “I guess they had a hard time at first putting sleazeball investment banker together with a doctorate in education.”
At the same time, the SUNY system was experiencing a dilemma, Clark says. When a SUNY college president steps down, the appointed interim president cannot apply to become president. The reason is that some highly qualified candidates could be discouraged from applying, thinking the interim president would be a sure bet for the appointment.
SUNY College at Plattsburgh was looking for a new president. Its provost was a likely interim choice, but he wanted to apply for the permanent position. So they sent Clark in to fill the seat for the year until a president could be found.
The same situation occurred at SUNY Brockport when Paul Yu stepped down. Clark was sent here to cover the 2004-2005 academic year.
Brockport, with some 7,000 full- and part-time undergraduates and 400 graduate students, has an annual budget of $115 million. The school, with 600 full- and part-time faculty, has its main campus in Brockport, with a satellite center in downtown Rochester.
When SUNY Chancellor Robert King appointed Clark to the Brockport post in July, he said he was confident Clark would do well.
“Dr. Clark did a superb job while serving as the interim president at the college at Plattsburgh,” King said at the time.
During his time at Plattsburgh, Clark forged strong relations with the college and the greater community. In a Feb. 27, 2004, editorial, the Plattsburgh Press Republican wrote:
“We will all miss John Clark. It took him less than a year to become an unforgettable and much loved figure in the North Country, and we will envy whoever winds up in his company.”

Just visiting

Dropping in to run a functioning institution is not as hard as it might seem, Clark says. Essentially, an interim president keeps the college’s momentum going, while acting as a salesperson to college presidential candidates.
Clark describes the year as an arc, beginning with a getting-to-know-you, let’s-focus agenda for the campus in the fall and ending with a slow backing away in the spring as the candidate field is narrowed and a president is chosen.
“I used to run relay and track in high school and pass the baton,” he says. “It’s like that.”
Each department sets short-term concrete goals in the early fall.
“Maybe nothing fancy, but something where we’re going to get that sense of accomplishment,” Clark says. “It is critical to make sure people don’t just see you as a gatekeeper, sitting up here on the seventh floor, doing nothing.”
The goal is to keep a sense of energy on the campus, so the new president will feel the school has a sense of momentum, he explains. For example, at SUNY Brockport, the department of academic affairs has been active in a national movement to get young people out to vote through a series of talks and other events aimed to create some excitement around the election.
Also, a special events and recreation center, seating up to 7,500 people, is being constructed on campus. The student body voted to pay a fee to offset the debt for the building. The school also is adding a dorm to be ready for fall 2006.
“Dr. Clark has been great-he has a real sense of energy and is good with everyone,” says Ray Di Pasquale, vice president for enrollment management at SUNY Brockport. “It’s a shame he can’t stay on.”
Members of the college community are taking some time to think about what type of president it needs. After seven years at SUNY Brockport, Yu left in June to be president of California State University, San Jose. He recently returned to the Roch-ester area.
“Dr. Yu did so much in terms of raising academic standards and the student profile here,” Clark says. “We need to rethink what needs to be done next and what type of person can get it done.”
A search committee is soliciting applications and nominations. The next step is for the committee to cull the number of candidates down to roughly a dozen, Clark says. Then the dozen candidates are interviewed confidentially off campus, and the group is weeded down to five.
“Our Fab Five then are publicly identified and brought to campus,” Clark says. “That will probably be early next semester.”
Next, the search committee recommends three of the five to the Brockport College Council, which sends them to the SUNY chancellor and vice chancellor, who decide on the next president.
“In the spring, I become the chief salesperson of the college, talking to the finalists, telling them this is a great place, while quietly ushering myself out as the new president comes in,” Clark says.

Enjoying the stay

As a history, art and literature buff, Clark has found some true pleasures on the SUNY Brockport campus. Culturally, the school teems with events such as plays and musical events. Faculty members are a creative bunch who produce all types of writing, art and research, he says.
“I’m like a kid in a candy shop. In the president’s house there’s a wonderful backyard and you open a small door and there’s the Erie Canal,” he says. “If you love American history, that’s something.”
One of the perks of the presidency is being able to poke through the special collections room. The curator pulled a drawer open one day, thinking Clark would be interested in its contents.
“Even though I’m a dilettante, I could recognize the signature,” he says. “There were 70 paintings by e.e. cummings. Wow!”
Tracing the history of the paintings has become a part-time hobby for Clark. Although cummings was best-known for his poetry, he also was a colleague of a number of New York City artists, including Man Ray and Frank Stella. His artwork does not make him a major art figure, but it reflects the movement of 20th century art, Clark says.
An art expert believes SUNY Brockport has the largest collection of cummings’ art in the world, he says.
Tracing cummings to Rochester and
Brockport has been fun, Clark says. The poet was a Harvard University classmate and close friend of Richard Sibley Watson, a doctor and early avant garde filmmaker. Watson came to Rochester to work with Eastman Kodak Co. on the internal filming of the human body.
Sibley was a Rochester Sibley, Clark says. He thinks the Watson can be traced to IBM Corp.’s Thomas Watson, who is considered the founder of IBM.
“So now what we’re trying to research is the connection between Watson, cummings and the campus,” Clark says.

The commuter

Clark is a commuter, spending weekends in New York City with his wife, Carolyn, and daughters, Catherine, 11, and Bridget, 4.
“It’s hard being away from them during the week,” he says. “Friday nights are great when daddy comes home, but Sundays aren’t so good.
“The fall semester isn’t that bad because we have both Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, but spring gets a little long. But then there’s light at the end of the tunnel and we spend some quality time during the summer.”
His goal is a permanent college presidency in the New York City metropolitan area.
“The big attraction to the interim presidency quite frankly is it gives me the opportunity to get some working experience as a president. Then, hopefully, if there’s some opening in the New York City area, we can take advantage.”
Being an interim president is bittersweet, he says.
“Psychologically, you’re committed, but there’s also a bit of reserve knowing you’re leaving,” Clark says. “I tell people I’m like a short-term reliever in baseball: I know I’m coming in for one inning and that’s it.”

Academic passion

Clark’s background displays a love of all things academic. After living in the Bronx and attending Catholic schools, he went to Providence, R.I., where he earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1972 from Providence College, a private school run by the Dominican Friars.
Following a two-year stint in Germany in the military, he attended John Jay College in New York City, earning a master of public administration degree in 1977.
Clark went on to receive a master of arts degree in economics from Fordham University in 1980, a master of arts degree in philosophy from New York University in 1984 and a doctorate in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2001.
“I explained to my wife-some guys go bowling, some go fishing. I go up in the attic and do my dissertation,” he says.
While busy earning college credits, Clark developed a 17-year career in public finance and municipal bond research with specialized knowledge of higher education and non-profit financing.
Before joining the SUNY system in 2003, Clark was the senior vice president of public finance for Ramirez, a New York City investment banking firm with clients such as the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York and the New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority.
While at Providence College, he intended to graduate and then go to graduate school.
“I think it was always a dream to be in academia,” he says.
The Selective Service System, however, intervened. Clark pulled a No. 94 in the draft lottery and was called up.
“Let me tell you a story,” he says. “This, by the way, is the story I tell students about the value of a broad-based education.”
The college required students to get a passing grade on the Graduate Record Examination in history to graduate. He received his draft call-up notice in the weeks just before the exam.
“So it’s the night before the exam and-this part is something I don’t usually share with students-I’m not in a particularly great mood because of my draft notice. But I remember thinking I’d still like to do well on the test and I’d still like to go on to grad school,” he says.
That night, he watched an old Gary Cooper movie on television about the uprising of the Seminole Indians.
“It was a grade C movie at best, with Gary fighting a rubber crocodile underwater, and at the end there was a big fight between Gary Cooper and Chief Osceola of the Seminole,” he says.
In the morning, the first section of the test was on architecture.
“I mean Doric, whatever this stuff is, and I know I’m dead. I can remember a lot about early Greek and Roman history, but architecture …” he says. “So I’m sitting there, I’ve been drafted, now I don’t know if I’ll graduate or not because I’ll bomb on this test.”
But the second section of the test was another matter entirely, he says.
“The first question is: Who was the leader of the Seminole uprising? I did very well on the GRE,” he says.
When he came back from Germany in 1974 with a history major under his belt, Clark found work with New York City and continued with part-time studies.
First, he worked for the housing authority as a housing assistant for low-income housing.
“Doing everything from renting to evicting,” he says.
Then he moved to health services jobs during the time the state was deinstitutionalizing the mentally and physically disabled.
“Interesting times,” he says. “It was very well-intentioned-it’s not even speakable about some of the conditions in the institutions.”
Trying to set up some of the patients-who were marginally able to take care of themselves-with services was difficult. Because they were suddenly free to leave, they often would just go with no network to help them cope.
“That’s probably one of the big reasons for the homeless problem,” he says. “We were trying to catch people who were all of a sudden deinstitutionalized and just wandered off.”
When he moved over to the hospitals corporation, it gave him the financial experience. The organization owns and manages the city’s public health institutions, and financing is a big part of what the agency does.
Throughout this time in the public-sector, he continued going to school.
“That’s when I got my master’s in public administration. Then I added a master’s in economics, especially public sector economics,” he says.
His first two master’s degrees were in a practical, career-related vein, he says. He opted to enter a graduate program in philosophy simply for the love of the humanities.
It was studying philosophy that took Clark to Wall Street, he says. In what became his final semester in the NYU graduate program, he was called in to talk to the department chairman.
“He said, ‘John, what are you doing here?’ I remember thinking, ‘That’s why I’m here in philosophy. Here’s the chairman of the department taking a personal interest in me.’
“Then he said, ‘Don’t you realize, John, there are no jobs in philosophy?’
“I grew up in the Bronx and we have a
direct way of speaking. I said, ‘You could
have told me that before.”
What bothered Clark most was the view that philosophy was above the more mundane issues of the world, such as making money.
“If I didn’t get the point then, the next month they brought all the graduate students in philosophy together and announced that New York University was terminating the doctoral program in philosophy,” he says.
In rebound, Clark went to Wall Street as a health care analyst. If life was to be all about money, so be it, he says.
But Clark continued on in school, working toward his doctorate in teaching from Columbia.
“I was treating it as an avocation, since at my age an academic career was not likely,” he says. “So my life plan was to eventually make enough money to endow a chair and then sit in it.”
Receiving his doctorate so late in life was mostly a labor of love. Clark thought it unlikely a college would want to take on a new professor in his 50s, he says.
“I thought I was basically excluded from academia, but America’s a great country, you know? That’s why our forebears immigrated here and now I’m sitting here and having a great time.”
(rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

11/05/04 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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