Clarke Cum Laude

Bob Clarke turns partnerships with industry into jobs for graduates at Vermont Technical College

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Once upon a time, Bob Clarke counted the summer months as a time he could catch his breath after the hectic academic year. Increasingly this 15-year president of Vermont Technical College (VTC) is on the go year-round, assessing the needs of Vermont industry to benefit graduates as well as businesses.

For Clarke the stakes are high. It’s not just about educating students — as if that weren’t significant enough. According to Clarke, the economic well-being of the state hangs in the balance. “If you look at all the things we do,” he says, “economic development is the part that’s weaving everything together.

Bob Clarke

“We have to change the mind-set of ‘The most prestigious liberal arts college I can get my son or daughter into is what’s best,’” says Vermont Technical College president Bob Clarke. “A high-quality engineering technology skill is actually more valuable financially and can be very rewarding professionally.”

“There’s a tremendous shortage of skilled workers,” he continues. “We are providing the skills that are needed by the business community. We can’t graduate enough students to meet the demands of industry.”

It’s no accident that Clarke has a solid understanding of those demands. “I spend a lot of time in business and industry all around the state,” he says. “My car’s a little over a year old and I’ve got 33,000 miles on it.” Considering he and his wife, Glenda, live on VTC’s Randolph Center campus, most of those miles are logged meeting with industry leaders to forge a variety of relationships.

VTC offers nearly 20 two-year associate’s degrees and a couple of four-year bachelor degrees. “Every single program is related to the industry,” boasts Clarke. A committee of five to 10 industry professionals and educators helps steer each program. The link between the college and Vermont’s business community is so tight that, more often than not, when VTC creates a new program, it’s at the request of industry.

“A great example of that is the automobile technology program. The Vermont Automobile Dealers Association came to the college and said, ‘We have a tremendous shortage of skilled technicians’,” recalls Clarke. “So we worked with them and designed a program that met the needs of that industry. Then they built a building for us, fully equipped it, and provide scholarship funds for students to attend it.” Vermont auto dealers benefit from a population of well-trained technicians as a return on their investment; graduates receive the advantage of highly marketable education.

“The newest one that’ll be started in the fall of 2000 is a program in plastics engineering technology,” says Clarke. “There’re 50-something plastics companies in the state of Vermont. We designed the program around their needs.”

In addition to launching new programs, Clarke emphasizes the need to keep pace with changing technology. Over the last decade, VTC has averaged equipment expenditures of more than $750,000 a year. He credits industry input with keeping VTC programs on track, citing the college’s revised veterinary technology program as an example. “The veterinarians of the state came to us and said, ‘The program is not really meeting our needs,’” he says. “‘Let’s revise it.’” The revamped coursework is the only vet tech program in New England accredited by the American Veterinary Association, and the most competitive VTC program to get into.

Ninety-eight percent of VTC alumni found jobs or continued their education within four months of graduation over the last 15 years; 96 percent of that group for 1998 ended up in jobs related to their field of study. Furthermore, more graduates than ever — approximately 80 percent — stay in the Green Mountains after the pomp and circumstance. “The more that we can work together with industry, identify their skill needs and get the people that they need, the better we’re going to be as a state,” Clarke offers. “I think it’ll also be beneficial for recruiting firms to relocate here.”

Growing up in Box Iron on Maryland’s eastern shore, Clarke graduated from high school in Snow Hill in 1968 before entering a four-year chemistry program at Salisbury State College. “I was very good at bridge, ping pong and pool,” he admits with a sheepish grin, before suggesting that such recreations along with his interest in souped-up cars eclipsed most interest in studying. (Nowadays a ’96 Corvette Collector’s Edition satisfies his car craze. The real McCoy sits in his garage; a scale model adorns his office.) Two years later he dropped out to enlist in the Air Force.

Nonetheless, Clarke’s brief time at Salisbury was well-spent: He met Glenda there, and they were married two weeks after her graduation in May 1972. Clarke had been in the military more than a year at that point, based at Langley A.F.B. in Virginia.

For the next several years the two lived in a number of states, as Clarke was transferred around the country. His line of work for the military was dentistry, a field the Air Force seems to have picked for Clarke randomly. “That’s the military for you!” he laughs. “While I was in the Air Force I decided I needed to go back to school. I knew I probably didn’t want to make a career out of the Air Force and that you had to have a college education to be competitive.”

A bachelor of science in occupational education earned from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1976 was followed by a master of science in the same field from Central Washington State College the next year. Eventually Clarke decided the private sector offered more opportunities, so he left the Air Force and went to work for Northampton County Area Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1978.

“I’d just started, been there less than a year, when I knew that college administration was really what I wanted to do,” he relates, “so I immediately went back to school.” He earned his doctorate in higher education from Lehigh University in 1983. In less than two years he answered a trade journal ad and became the president of VTC in the summer of ’84.

He was 33 years old.

“I think we were both perceived as being too young to do what we do,” Rob Ide chuckles, describing the friendship he struck with Clarke shortly after his arrival in Vermont. Ide, a state senator for seven years and the sixth-generation owner of E.T. & H.K. Ide Inc. in St. Johnsbury, is a 1972 graduate of VTC. He and Clarke conceptualized a legislative commission on higher education, which recently helped land a 7 percent funding increase for the Vermont state colleges. “Bob never thinks of making himself look good; he wants the organization to look good,” Ide offers. “He has shown immense leadership in thinking outside the box.”

Linda Perez & Steven Ingram

Executive assistant Linda Perez and Steven Ingram, dean of academic affairs.

Clarke’s list of accomplishments speaks for itself. He has increased gifts and grants for VTC from $20,000 a year to more than $2,650,000. The endowment fund he established has grown to more than $3.6 million. Equipment expenditures are up. Outreach programs such as customized training programs for specific Vermont businesses have grown to constitute a majority of the college’s more than $21 million general operating budget for fiscal year 1999.

The first such program was a partnership to manage all training and education for IBM’s 7,500 employees in Essex Junction. Clarke helped put together a consortium of the University of Vermont and the five Vermont state colleges, including VTC, to outbid Big Blue’s internal education department. “We actually are the education department,” says Clarke. “No other IBM plant in the nation does this. No other major corporation that I know of does this.”

Dick Chapman was general manager of IBM in the mid ’80s. “He was constructively aggressive in trying to market what the strengths of his institutions were,” he says of Clarke. “He came across as a get-it-done guy, who I thought was pretty effective.” Chapman, former COO of Chittenden Bank and secretary of administration for the late Gov. Richard Snelling, employs a number of VTC alumni at Vermont Electric Power Co. in Rutland, where he is president. “I’ve been a believer for some time that VTC is a world-class technical education center,” he says.

Clarke has gone on to forge similar relationships with Husky Injection Molding Systems in Milton, Bell Atlantic and BF Goodrich. “You think of us as a small campus college,” says Clarke, before pointing out that VTC employs nearly 400 people in 31 locations. “We served in one way or another over 50,000 people last year.”

In addition to education and training programs devoted to specific businesses, outreach adjuncts like the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) based at VTC are like additional fingers on the pulse of Vermont industry. VTC is one of two two-year colleges in the country to operate a manufacturing extension center; one of five that run a small business development center. The SBDC, originally based at UVM, was recently named the top center in the nation by the Small Business Administration.

Vermont Interactive Television was developed during Clarke’s tenure and has grown to a 12- site, two-way interactive audio/video system based at VTC. The system, under the guidance of Judith Irving, serves non-profit organizations, government agencies and businesses, as well as VTC’s statewide nurses training program.

His summers are nearly as busy as the academic year, but Clarke makes an effort to take time off each July. He and Glenda, a former English teacher at Barre Town Elementary School, enjoy mid-summers at Clarke’s “retirement” home a mile south of the Crown Point Bridge in Addison. Blackjack, the couple’s airedale who joined the couple on their 21st wedding anniversary, is in tow.

When Clarke steps down from his post in 2005, at the age of 55, he plans to make the Addison locale his permanent residence. It’ll be a major shift from his past 15 years heading VTC, and a chance to catch up on his reading: Ludlum, Koones, Grisham, King and the like. It’s unlikely to be the last you’ll hear from him: “It doesn’t mean that I’ll retire forever,” he says with a smile. “It just means that I’m not going to be president of VTC after that.”

On the road with Bob Clarke

Bob Clarke’s statewide travels allow him to hear what’s on the minds of Vermont businesspeople. Aside from praise for VTC alumni, this is what Clarke says he hears most often:

  • Labor: “The shortage of skilled workers is a detriment to Vermont,” he says. VTC is responding through jobs-oriented degree programs and technology extension efforts.
  • Stability: “They really want a stable, predictable tax structure. And a stable, predictable environmental review process,” says Clarke. “They’re not against Act 250. They just want a fair and consistent application.”
  • Attitude: Clarke says, “One thing people tell me all the time is, ‘Vermont is not friendly to business.’” He points out the problem isn’t with the governor: “It’s the implementation level that people have frustration with — some of the day-to-day things.”