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Kim Clark, outside the Mormon temple in Belmont, will become president of BYU-Idaho.
Kim Clark, outside the Mormon temple in Belmont, will become president of BYU-Idaho. (Globe Photo / Josh Reynolds)

For Harvard dean, a higher calling

At church's bidding, business school head leaves for Mormon college

In his 56 years as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kim B. Clark had met the church's president exactly once, and had never had a real conversation with him.

But for Mormons such as Clark, 95-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley is not just the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, not just the holder of the keys to all of the ordinances of salvation; he is also a prophet, a seer, and a revelator.

So when Hinckley called Clark on May 25 to ask him to leave his post as dean of Harvard Business School and take a job heading a Mormon college in Idaho, Clark knew the answer before Hinckley posed the question.

The answer was yes.

And now Clark, who at Harvard holds one of the loftiest jobs in academe, is heading off to Rexburg, Idaho, to become president of the newest outpost of Mormon higher education: Brigham Young University-Idaho, a proud name for a campus that until four years ago was a two-year institution known as Ricks College.

Clark is the second Harvard dean in four years to depart from the pinnacle of his chosen profession at the behest of his church. In 2001, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, the first Catholic priest to head Harvard Divinity School, resigned at the request of Cardinal Bernard F. Law to head an umbrella association of Catholic Charities organizations in Washington.

Clark and Hehir had each spent much of his adult life at Harvard -- despite the obvious potential tensions between their conservative faiths and some of Harvard's progressive policies -- but each managed to defy expectations twice: by rising to the top echelon of the university's administration and then by walking away for a job many of their colleagues could never imagine doing.

''Personally, if president Hinckley called me on the telephone and asked me to do something, I would do it," Clark said in a recent interview. ''There's no confusion in my mind that this is a responsibility which comes to me from him, and it comes from the Lord, and at the same time it's a professional opportunity and I'm going to have to use all the professional skills that I have to try to make it as good as it can be."

For Hehir, who left several years earlier, the role of church authority in his career was even more direct. Hehir is an ordained priest who promised obedience to his bishop.

''It works for me, because I knew what I was walking into from the beginning," Hehir said. ''I committed myself to serve the institution and the community of the Catholic Church as a diocesan priest, so I expect that my career choices will be directly influenced by the life of the church."

Hehir refused to accept the title of dean of Harvard Divinity School, to make clear that he had a higher commitment, so Harvard agreed to call him chairman of the executive committee. He also declined to live in the divinity school's mansion, choosing instead to reside in a parish rectory in Cambridge, and he insisted on having a day off each week to work for a Catholic cause, traveling every Friday to Baltimore to help Catholic Relief Services.

Clark, named to head the business school in 1995, also declined to live in the mansion normally made available to the dean, saying he did not want to raise his seven children on campus. And because Mormons do not drink alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, Clark initially struggled with his entertaining duties. Ultimately, he decided that all his work-related entertaining would take place at Harvard, not at his home.

While at Harvard, Clark said, he was careful to keep many aspects of his faith private.

''People need to have confidence that when I am taking a position, or arguing a point, or making a decision, that somehow I am not trying to impose my faith or my beliefs on other people, and there is a spirit of openness and open inquiry here," he said.

''I have tried to live what I believe, and run this school to the best of my ability, but I have not made it [my faith] a public experience for people," he said. ''At BYU-Idaho, it becomes a much more public sharing of that experience, because it's the church."

Clark grew up in Washington and Utah, states with large Mormon populations, and was 18 when he arrived at Harvard in the summer of 1967, for a job cleaning out dormitories before the start of his freshman year.

''I felt really kind of like I was in a different universe from what I had grown up with," Clark said.

But he stayed, earning a bachelor's degree in 1974 and a doctorate in economics in 1978. He joined the Harvard faculty that year. He has been away from Harvard for significant amounts of time on only three occasions: for two years as a Mormon missionary in Germany while an undergraduate, for a year at BYU's main campus in Provo, Utah, while a graduate student, and for six months working at the US Department of Labor during the Ford administration, when one of his graduate professors, John T. Dunlop, was serving as the agency's secretary.

Throughout his tenure at Harvard, Clark has continued to play various leadership roles in the Mormon church, including as the bishop heading a congregation in Cambridge and as a scoutmaster leading monthly camping trips for boys. He was a prominent supporter of the construction of a Mormon temple on a hilltop in Belmont and he visited the Globe in 2002 to discuss concerns about how his faith would be portrayed on the campaign trail and in the media as Mitt Romney prepared to run for governor.

''I had always thought at some point, once my service here at HBS ended, that if there was an opportunity to be involved in one of the church's universities, that that's something we could do," said Clark, referring to himself and his wife, Sue. ''The common element in my thinking about all this was to try to put myself in a position to be of service and to do what I thought my Heavenly Father wanted me to do."

Harvard Business School, founded in 1908, has educated many of the nation's elite. BYU-Idaho, by contrast, was established in 2001 as a four-year institution. It is a successor to Bannock Stake Academy, founded in 1888 to educate Mormon pioneers and over time was renamed Fremont Stake Academy, Ricks Academy, Ricks Normal College, and then Ricks College.

''It has an ambition, a desire to become a great four-year school, and I felt that that was an opportunity to be engaged in really building an institution," Clark said. ''There's a spirit of innovation on that campus, a desire to do things differently, to not be bound by the conventions of the academy, and to simply take on the challenge of educating and developing truly outstanding young people in the very best way we can figure out, and that's a very interesting prospect."

Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, a longtime friend who once introduced Clark as ''dean for life," said he made little effort to dissuade Clark from leaving.

''It became clear to me almost instantly that I was the president of Harvard and the president of Kim's church had spoken," Summers said at a news conference announcing Clark's departure. ''And so I was best off accommodating the reality that I faced."

Sometimes departures are not forever. In Hehir's case, Harvard stayed in touch and continued offering the priest, who is an specialist on Catholic teachings about war and peace, opportunities to teach. So in 2003, when Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley brought Hehir back to Boston to head Catholic Charities here, Hehir also returned part time to the Harvard faculty, where he is now teaching one course a semester at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Clark, like Hehir before him, said he was unconcerned about the perception that he was leaving a high-visibility post for a little-known job.

''I think issues of prestige and stature are socially constructed -- they get established in various kinds of interactions that we have in society, and they show up in the culture in different ways," Clark said. ''People of faith walk around, in their heads, with a very different way of framing the world and deciding on what's important and what's not."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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