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Jack Smith

Professor Kent Clark celebrates Caltech's secret weapons--secretaries

April 16, 1986|JACK SMITH

I have always wondered how an institution like Caltech can be run with such evident efficiency when, as everyone knows, most of its high-level employees--professors, that is--are disorderly, absent-minded and incompetent in any field but their own.

How can the everyday business of such a place get done when the people in charge--mostly men, by the way--are concerned only with the orbits of infinitesimal particles inside the atom or the orbits of astronomical bodies millions of light years away from earth?

I should have guessed.

The people who get the work done out there are Caltech's secretaries.

Until now, they have gone unsung. But in the current issue of the Caltech monthly, On Campus, the institute's celebrated non-scientist professor of literature, Kent Clark, has sung them a song.

Despite his white hair, his dignity and his scholarship, which has produced such esoteric works as a biography of Goodwin Wharton (a 17th-Century Englishman so improbable that I suspect Clark of making him up), he is rather a cutup, and his wit is legendary.

It was Clark (with Elliott Davis) who wrote the definitive Caltech musical comedy, "Let's Advance on Science," which was produced on campus some years ago and did much to put the institute in perspective.

It was this work that celebrated the long-avoided acceptance of women as undergraduates, the hit of the show being a ballad called "A Nice Girl Like You," which went like this:

We're very glad to see you, delighted that you're here. You give the place a touch of charm and class. We honor your intentions, admire your dimensions, We love both your momentum and your mass. So don't misunderstand us, and never go. But there is one small thing that we would like to know. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

By the way, since Caltech is so abundantly populated with acknowledged geniuses, Clark has never been mistaken on campus for Superman, though his name is Clark Kent's name inverted.

On Campus magazine asked Clark to write a piece on secretaries for this month's issue, Secretaries Day being next Wednesday.

"It is an axiom," he began, "that good secretaries must be sharper, more versatile, and better balanced than the people they work for. At Caltech, however, this axiom takes on a special dimension because of the oddball nature of the institution. . . ."

Being merely a professor of literature, in which the language of communication is English, rather than algebra, FORTRAN or some other arcane scientific tongue, Clark is counted on to see the institution as it really is and to translate it into English for the rest of us.

(I once heard that there was a meeting at Caltech of experts in a mathematical field so abstruse that its premises could not be expressed in English. Being convinced that anything could be expressed in English, I went out to the campus to check it out. They were right. We failed to communicate.)

"At Caltech," Clark continues in his essay on secretaries, "personal incompetence in professors is considered lovable if not actually prestigious." (You will remember that Einstein couldn't even comb his hair.) "It has never been clearly established that a professor can understand the nucleus of the atom and also tie his own shoes properly or figure out a travel itinerary. It is necessary, therefore, that he should be supervised by somebody who can actually cope.

"At Caltech, secretaries must be career diplomats. They must convince people who are, by definition, geniuses that they are idiots, without hurting their feelings. In practice this means correcting the mental, physical, and sometimes moral errors of people who are not expected to make them. . . .

"In the humanities, where I work, secretaries have a special responsibility. They must make literary professors sound literate. This means that a good secretary is at once a literary editor, a reference librarian, and a research specialist. She will find herself checking out quotations in a foreign language, looking up biographical data, and running down biographical references, besides straightening out tortured syntax and individualistic spelling. . . ." (I suppose a secretary also has to get used to working for somebody named Kent Clark.)

He goes on: "It is a paradoxical fact that the great secretarial virtues--versatility, diplomacy, and devotion to duty--have probably delayed the recognition that secretaries deserve as professionals. Personality is often considered irrelevant to professional expertise.

"It is perfectly possible, for instance, to be a professor and a creep. . . . Secretaries, therefore, have had to struggle not only against male chauvinism, but also against a cultural bias. Thank heaven Caltech has a group of secretaries who can cope with this nonsense. They make the Institute run."

In case you are left with the impression that Clark is a male chauvinist himself, let me quote the "nice girl's" answer to the question "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

What's a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?

A nice girl like me happens to be fond of physics.

A nice girl like me wants to be an engineer,

Fond of mathematics, fond of hydrostatics,

Any new dimension, any new invention,

Wild about a photon, gamma ray or proton,

No ton I want to miss,

Being in a place like this.

You can see that Kent Clark, even though he isn't a scientist, is not an easy man to work for.

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