Getting a 34-year Harvard man to abandon one of the nation's most prestigious business schools for an Idaho church college seems like a task that would demand divine revelation. For Kim Clark, who left his post as Harvard Business School dean last week, it came down to the next best thing.
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Clark took a call in May from Gordon Hinckley, the 95-year-old president of the Mormons. Hinckley asked the economist to head Brigham Young University-Idaho, which just five years ago was a two-year junior college.
"You have to appreciate what this is like," the 56-year-old Clark said. "We behold him (Hinckley) to be a prophet. Imagine yourself getting a call from Moses."
World's fastest growing faith has loyal followers
Scholars of Mormonism say Clark's exchange of cosmopolitan Cambridge, Mass., for Rexburg, in rural Idaho, offers a glimpse of the allegiance Mormon laity have to leaders in one of the world's fastest growing faiths.
"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 campus in Provo, Utah.
Conservative views contrast with Harvard's
To take just one area, sexuality, Harvard has several organizations — with combined membership in the thousands — supporting its gay and lesbian students and alumni. At BYU-Idaho, Mormons believe same-sex relationships violate God's design for marriage.
Students also took part last month in a "Modest is Hottest: A Guy Panel" forum.
Clark was born in Utah and raised in Spokane, Wash., but he'd been to Rexburg only for short stays before taking over at the college. His new home has just 17,000 residents and boasts just two non-American restaurants — one Chinese, one Mexican.
"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.
BYU-Idaho 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.
Leaving Harvard, becoming a rising star
Clark's move, viewed from inside the church, could be seen as a promotion: Some say this establishes Clark, a former Mormon bishop, as a rising star. His predecessor as university president, 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. He and his wife, Sue, who have seven children, opted to live off campus, not in the house at Harvard reserved for the business school dean.
By contrast, his religion and job will align at BYU-Idaho, where every Tuesday many of its 14,500 students attend afternoon religious services. The president guides their spiritual and academic development.
"The church influence 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.
An ‘ecclesiastic calling’
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. BYU-Idaho officials won't say how much he'll earn in Rexburg.
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.