Mormon takes prophet's call, spurns Harvard for Idaho

Associated Press/August 7, 2005
By John Miller

Getting a 34-year Harvard man to abandon one of the nation's most prestigious business colleges for an Idaho church school would seem to demand nothing short of divine revelation.

For Kim Clark, whose last day as Harvard Business School dean was July 31, it was nearly that.

It came in the form of a phone call last May to Clark, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints member, from Gordon Hinckley, the 95-year-old leader of the Mormons. Hinckley asked the economist to head Rexburg's Brigham Young University-Idaho, which just five years ago was a two-year junior college.

"You have to appreciate what this is like," said Clark, 56, of Hinckley's call. "We behold him to be a prophet. Imagine yourself getting a call from Moses."

Scholars of Mormonism say Clark's exchange of cosmopolitan Cambridge, Mass., for rural Idaho offers a glimpse of the allegiance Mormon laity have to leaders in one of the world's fastest growing churches.

"LDS people are pretty responsive to that sort of a direct call, a mission call, almost," said Lawrence Foster, a religious history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

It will be a drastic change in scenery and culture for Clark, who began his Harvard career as a freshman in 1967, interrupting his stay only for a two-year church mission in Germany and a year at BYU's Provo, Utah, campus.

Rexburg, which has just 17,000 residents and boasts just two non-American restaurants - one Chinese, one Mexican - and liberal Cambridge are worlds apart.

At Harvard, for instance, there is an open lesbian and bisexual community among faculty and students. At BYU-Idaho, Mormons believe same-sex relationships violate God-sanctioned marriage. Students this month took part in a "Modest is Hottest: A Guy Panel" forum extolling the virtues of appropriate clothing.

No stranger to the West, Clark was born in Utah and raised in Spokane, Wash.

Even so, he's been to Rexburg just once for an eight-hour visit following the June announcement he'd be taking over.

"It doesn't matter to me what other people think about" the decision to leave Harvard, Clark said. "I'm pretty sure that if you and I have this conversation 10 years from now, people will know about BYU-Idaho."

Officials at the 117-year-old school say it's not an academic wilderness.

It eliminated varsity athletics to concentrate on academics in 2000, the year Hinckley announced the school would offer four-year degrees. A three-tiered admissions system allows for more students than other schools with more traditional semesters, in part to accommodate men and some women who return from Mormon missions throughout the year.

And Clark's move, viewed from inside the church, could be seen as a promotion: Some say this establishes Clark, a Mormon bishop, as a rising star. His predecessor, David Bednar, was named in 2004 to the "Quorum of the 12 Apostles," a church governing body considered by Mormons to have the same authority as the 12 Biblical apostles.

"If one were thinking for the church either about university matters or future ecclesiastical office, Kim Clark is clearly on the radar screen," said Philip Barlow, a Mormon and religion professor at Indiana's Hanover College.

At Harvard, Clark kept his Mormonism separate from his academic life. With his wife, Sue, the nondrinker and nonsmoker by faith opted to entertain university guests at school, not the off-campus home where they have raised seven kids.

That will change at BYU-Idaho, where every Tuesday many of its 14,500 students attend afternoon religious services. The president guides their spiritual fundament as well as their academic development.

"The church influences washes over, runs through, pervades everything we do," said Robert Wilkes, BYU-Idaho interim president.

Clark's decision has aroused much debate, even among church members. On an LDS-related Web site called "Times and Seasons," some called Clark's move to largely Mormon eastern Idaho a wasteful sacrifice of church influence in the northeastern U.S.

In leaving his $407,000 post at Harvard, Clark steps from a platform that lent him instant gravitas. An expert on the international automobile industry, he sits on boards at JetBlue Airways and toolmaker Black & Decker.

The church's education director, W. Rolfe Kerr, calls the BYU-Idaho presidency a "paid job," not an "ecclesiastical calling."

Still, a request from Hinckley would be a difficult to refuse, church members say.

"If Gordon Hinckley called and said, 'What I need you to do is go work on the grounds crew at BYU-Idaho,' I would say 'Yes,' " said Paul Pugmire, president of the Rexburg City Council.

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