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A Time to Teach Character

Claremont McKenna's Jack Stark Will Focus Campus Attention on Integrity in His Final Year as President

April 08, 1998|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Consider the changes at Claremont McKenna College during Jack L. Stark's 28-year reign as president:

The school changed its name from Claremont Men's College. It began admitting women, who now make up nearly half of its student body. The endowment has grown from $10 million to $276 million. And the school has vaulted from near obscurity to many top 10 lists of the nation's small liberal arts colleges.

As the longest-serving college president in California, Stark has seen another change, but one that disturbs him: how students these days seem focused mostly on making a buck and securing "their place in the sun."

So before Stark, 63, retires in July 1999--as he announced first to the Board of Trustees and then to the public this week--he wants to use his position to drill some values into his students, values such as "integrity, commitment and achievement."

"We have terrific students, but all of the evidence you see out of the [freshman] surveys is that they tend to be more self-centered, want to make more money and get better jobs," Stark said.

"That's fine, but it needs to be balanced with a sense of personal integrity, a commitment to humanity, the community and the nation. A sense of achievement should not be beating the other fellow. It is putting forth your best effort."

The new moral tone at Claremont McKenna may come as a surprise to the five other institutions clustered on the shady communal campus 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. For 51-year-old Claremont McKenna, which emphasizes economics and government, has cast itself as a more conservative, career-minded school when contrasted with liberal Pomona College, which pushes liberal arts and classics, or Pitzer, which promotes interdisciplinary work and community service.

The other colleges are Harvey Mudd, one of the nation's top undergraduate engineering schools; Scripps, a well-regarded women's college in the humanities, arts and social sciences; and Claremont Graduate University, which offers master's and doctoral degrees in more than a dozen fields.

Stark complains that secular colleges don't spend much time on what used to be called "character building." So during his remaining 15 months on the job, Stark said, he aims to change that at Claremont McKenna, which sees itself as a campus that educates future leaders for business and government.

Just how does he plan to do it in the time left?

By preaching to his captive audience: 93% of the residential college's 979 students live on campus.

"I'm going to surprise some people because my reputation is not a preacher," Stark said. "My reputation is more of a hard-nosed administrator."

Stark said he is not planning to push any religious doctrine, but rather to talk up the ideals that underlie most religions and which, he believes, are lacking in today's society.

He wants to strike an idealistic tone at the Athenaeum, the campus' four-night-a-week speaker series. He's going to hang banners on the integrity theme. He is going to promote more volunteerism. And he will urge students to adopt a broad honor code ('I will not lie," etc.)--in addition to the current, more specific campus rules of conduct--which he hopes they will carry with them after they graduate.

"Society has changed, and students reflect society's mores," Stark said. "Since our students are going to be leaders, we have a special obligation to focus on these issues."

*

Claremont McKenna will immediately begin a nationwide search to replace Stark, who graduated from the college in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in literature. After a three-year stint in the Marine Corps, he returned to the school to work in the alumni relations office.

The Board of Trustees tonight will appoint a search committee of trustees, faculty, alumni and a student.

Stark is unusual among college presidents not only for his longevity during a time when serving a decade is often a feat in the highly political job. He is also one of the few presidents without a graduate degree.

Celebrations of his presidency will begin next term with a national tour of alumni groups, said college spokesman Geoffrey Baum. They will wrap up on campus near his retirement date, when campus officials expect to present him with a special gift: an honorary doctoral degree.

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