Chris Clarke has what he calls a “Renaissance approach” to higher education. He began his career in residential life, running student activities and directing intramural sports. He also worked in student affairs at institutions including Ripon College and the Juilliard School; worked with international students when he was the Associate Dean of Students at SIT Study Abroad (World Learning) in Vermont from 2009-2013; and spent six years working for a commercial realty group in New York City as Vice President of Operations.
Most recently, Clarke served as the Associate Vice President of Operations at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, where he led the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While he was in that role their Dean of Students resigned, so for a year he was the Interim Dean in addition to handling the university’s COVID response and the operations side of things.
That morphed once again when Shippensburg’s Director of Human Resources left, and Clarke took on the supervision of Human Resources, facilities and public safety. “Many people would look at this background and see a jumble,” Clarke said; to him, though, he’s just been picking up a toolset, adding different tools from each experience.
Clarke hit the ground running on Monday, Feb. 7. One of his first priorities in this role is to find out what was done in the past and why, and then figure out how things can be done in the future. He shared, “I know Curt [Lauderdale] was here for a long time. Curt had certain ways of doing things. I am obviously not Curt. So this time would be about me finding my way, but making sure that students are not let down or left out in the cold.”
Another priority in these first few weeks is to get involved with students and show up at meetings to begin finding out where he can play a helpful role, make effective change, and generally be a supportive presence for students. Clarke stressed that despite restrictions due to COVID, he welcomes conversations with students anytime his office door is open.
Unfortunately, he said, “A lot of the time students wait until it gets to the extreme to come with complaints, but the proactive, constructive criticism really helps us make those steps before other students suffer the same kind of maladies.” Clarke continued, “I want the students that didn’t always feel comfortable joining a group to be able to come in here and say, “listen, this is what I’m dealing with. I know there’s others just like me. I can’t speak for them, but what can we do?”’
While Clarke knows he won’t always have good answers for students or be able to change things right away, he is still passionate about having those conversations, saying, “Transparency, availability, and approachability are the kinds of tenets that I want this office and my position to really stand upon. I will take anything and everything students want to talk to me about. I might not be the one dealing with it, but I will find the right person to give the right answer, and that will help me become more well-versed as far as what the university has done and where I can assist.” Students are welcome to connect with Clarke via phone, email, stopping by his office in Raymond House or catching him on the street.
Though Clarke has only been at Lawrence for two weeks, he mentioned that the issue of connecting students with resources more effectively is an issue that has already been brought up a number of times. He shared, “I was in an LUCC meeting recently where they discussed that the Lawrence website has information about resources available to students, but when students are knee deep in crisis, their first reaction is not, “Hey, let me go look on the website.”’ Clarke mentioned efforts to make information about resources more accessible, in the hopes that if more students are aware of these resources, that will enable them to advocate for themselves and assist their fellow students with accessing resources.
Clarke acknowledged the many departments on campus who want to support students, but said this has to be a unified effort from administrators; he sees it as his job to connect and work with all of these departments to make sure they’re creating an environment where every student feels safe, seen, and valued as a community member.
When navigating tensions between administration and students, Clarke says, “A lot of things come down to perspectives or perceptions. Most people in higher ed aren’t just there because they’re getting paid to do a job, but because they want to make sure that they’re benefiting the community and that they’re pushing students forward.”
When asked specifically about the recent conflicts between students and administration on sustainability concerns, Clarke observed that there are many reasons these things might get bogged down on the administrative side, from the financial cost to facility issues. Lawrence is an older campus, so Clarke pointed to the difficulty, financial and otherwise, of retrofitting the campus while still meeting student needs. He said, “I think everyone wants to get there. It’s just a matter of how we get there.”
Clarke believes in the importance of being transparent with students about the concerns they bring forward, saying, “I will never say no, just to say no. If I’m saying no, that can’t be done right now, I’ll tell you the reasons why, or look for alternatives we can try.” Change almost never happens immediately, and often requires a drawn out process to achieve the end goal, and Clarke thinks sometimes the complicated route toward change isn’t explained or discussed; for him, this falls back to the tenet of transparency, and making sure students feel seen and respected.
Clarke is very upfront that part of his passion for higher education is ‘selfish’, sharing, “Helping students also helps the soul for me. A part of it is the whole idea that students are going to educate me, and that continuous education is important to me.” He continued, “I got my master’s and my law degree while I was still working as a coach; there was always something else in addition to work so that I was becoming a more well-rounded and a more developed person.”
Clarke also stressed how important it was to him to be involved with students and be there for them in times of crisis or share in and celebrate their successes. He recognized that current Lawrence students are the generation who will guide and hopefully affect change in the United States, and likes to think that through supporting students, he has helped in that change and growth.
“Going to college is hard enough,” Clarke said, “And when you don’t feel that there are people there that understand what your battle is, then it gets even harder. So I’m trying to be in this role of “Hey, let me grab that off your back for a little while and know that you have somebody here to talk to.”’