By Matt Vines
Larry Clark punched a shark.
The avid runner headed down North Carolina’s Wrightsville Beach in the early morning before taking his usual dip in the ocean.
Diagnosed with melanoma, Clark gave up his noontime run and other outdoor activities like sailing and golfing to limit sun exposure.
But sharks feed at dawn.
“I was watching all these little silver fish going by, glinting in the sun,” said Clark, who in his early 60s was dean of UNC Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business. “Where are they going so fast? They are going through a point in the wave where it’s going up, and I look over and say, ‘Oh crap, there’s a shark coming right at me.”
The sand shark bit Clark on the arm near his wrist, and the Army veteran relied on training learned at the Vietnam training village at then-Fort Benning to repeatedly strike the shark. Clark’s arm swelled, not because of the seriousness of the shark bite, but because Clark reacted to something in the shark’s mouth.
“It wasn’t one of the biggest or most ferocious things,” Clark said of the shark, which was identified as a sand shark by a UNCW faculty member who runs a professional fishing tour guide business.
That fighting trait has served him well throughout his career and since returning to LSUS as chancellor in 2014, choosing to leave the beautiful North Carolina shoreline to return to the place where his academic career started.
Clark is retiring at the end of June after a nine-year tenure at the helm of LSUS, and the school has undergone quite a transformation.
“Larry has been punching sharks for us throughout his entire time at LSUS,” said Dr. Helen Taylor, the LSUS Provost who’s served as a faculty member since 1990. “When Larry came here in 2014, LSUS was in a pretty bad position financially speaking.
“We hadn’t been able to hire faculty. But we’re in a much better position now. The revenue from the online programs has been plowed back into the infrastructure of the campus, and it’s a much better looking and more functioning place than it was when he got here as chancellor.”
To understand Clark’s return, one must understand his LSUS beginning.
When Clark decided to return as the LSUS Chancellor in 2014, the then-65-year-old would have been happy to continue his business dean career of nearly three decades or waltz into retirement with his wife Georgia.
Clark started his LSUS career in 1981 as a business law faculty member, eventually serving as the College of Business Dean from 1985 until 1994.
“The relationships that were developed from my first time around were very important to me,” Clark said. ”There was a sense of accomplishment of what we had achieved as a business school and a university, and it really took a campus-wide effort.
“We were the second smallest public school to achieve accreditation from the (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) for both the masters and undergraduate programs.”
Non-traditional has always been part of LSUS’s story, starting as a two-year college alongside Southern University Shreveport and Bossier Parish Community College in 1967, before LSUS gained four-year status in 1973.
When Clark, who had two law degrees in hand, came to LSUS in 1981 as a business law faculty member, the school was just 14 years old and a four-year institution for less than a decade.
As part of its founding charter, LSUS couldn’t have on-campus housing, which influenced the school to serve commuter students in the immediate area, which in turn morphed into serving transfer students and non-traditional adult learners who didn’t attend college directly after high school.
Graduate programs became another consistent way for LSUS to attract students, and Clark scratched and clawed to bring LSUS up to code and receive accreditation from the AACSB per a new state regulation in the 1980s.
“One stipulation for accreditation was that we had to have a computer lab – but we didn’t have the funding,” said Clark, who was the youngest lead author of a McGraw-Hill textbook upon becoming dean. “We were hyper-focused on this accreditation, but Mary Ann McBride (Liberal Arts Dean) helped me understand that all five colleges needed growth and support to expand.
“She said if you had a very strong business school and nothing else, do you’d think you’d have strong graduates? The obvious answer was no.”
The campus and community organized an event that featured former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a speaker, raising $85,000 to fund the first two computer labs at LSUS.
A pair of golden sailboats sit on a shelf above Clark’s computer, a present from faculty thanking him for his leadership in the accreditation process.
Clark was one of four faculty officers to serve on LSUS’s first formal faculty leadership body, giving the faculty a stronger voice, which impacted Clark’s views on faculty in his leadership roles.
Scott Hardwick, chief information officer, said Clark valued faculty input.
“Through (LSUS Planning Council) and faculty and staff senate meetings, Larry tells us everything we’d want to know and probably some things we didn’t know to know,” Hardwick said about Clark’s transparency and thoroughness. “One of the key parts of leading is making people feel like they are part of the process and they too can add thoughts or change the trajectory of what’s going on.”
Clark’s community ties entrenched him in Shreveport-Bossier’s fabric.
The business school performed quality management duties for companies throughout Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, which included Tyson Foods and Louisiana Power and Light.
LSUS graduates were highly valued, including an accounting graduate who rode in a Rose Bowl float as the top scorer in the country on the CPA exam.
In addition to serving on numerous boards, Clark was picked for the Black-White Communications Task Force and the Shreveport Biracial Commission, committees formed following the Cedar Grove riots of 1988.
When Clark left for Sonoma State in California in 1994, he and his wife returned to the area often to visit her daughters, who were finishing college.
“I loved my time here, loved my journey,” Clark said of Shreveport. “I was never out of contact with Shreveport, and I was able to stay aware of what was going on from the 20,000-foot view.”
Clark famously had a sign outside of his UNC Wilmington dean’s office that displayed how many days since he had set foot in the administration building, much like how many days since the last accident at a factory.
The higher the number – the better for Clark.
He had never ruled out a return to LSUS – but he had no desire to be a chancellor.
But when the position opened in 2013, those community connections began calling.
“I’m just thankful he took on the job of being a chancellor,” said Mike Woods, an LSUS Foundation board member who has served on the University of Louisiana System. “He was at a stage in his life where he could have retired.
“He had spent the last 20 years of his life in Sonoma, California, and Wilmington, North Carolina. It didn’t hurt that he had grandchildren here, so thank you to his wife Georgia for making him come back.”
Upon Clark’s return, he found a university – like many in Louisiana during that time – with budget problems.
Louisiana cut roughly half of public universities’ state funding over a multi-year period after the Great Recession began in 2007, forcing schools to seek many more private sources of funding (mainly student tuition and fees).
Clark said at his first staff meeting that there was a “very strong possibility” that the university would have to declare financial exigency midway through his first year in 2014-15.
But Clark’s predecessor, interim chancellor Paul Sisson, started LSUS’s journey to online education, particularly business graduate programs.
Clark and a core group of faculty/staff recognized the necessity of this path, and LSUS went from an enrollment of just more than 4,100 students to a peak of nearly 10,000 students just after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know if it was a no-brainer at that point in time,” said Clark, who was at Sonoma State in 2000 when the business school became one of the first in the country to offer a handful of online classes – an ‘utter failure’ because the idea was too far ahead of its time. “There was a lot of resistance to it.
“(Dr. Julie Lessiter) was a huge piece because of her relationship with Academic Partnerships (an online education company). We bet the house money on going online, and not just go online, but be damn good at it.”
Online graduate students, particularly in the Master of Business Administration program, fueled this growth as LSUS’s graduate student population grew from 440 students in 2014 to its height of 7,402 students in 2020.
The University’s Fall 2022 overall enrollment of 8,721 is the fourth straight year above 8,500 as schools find their footing post pandemic.
LSUS adopted the LSU flagship’s purple and gold colors and logos per a directive from LSU president F. King Alexander – at first an unpopular move – but a decision that greatly enhanced the University’s visibility and credibility to online students by leveraging LSU’s familiar branding.
“It’s very unique when the entire faculty senate votes unanimously on something, and they voted that I should fight to get our original Blue and Gold back,” Clark said. “As a new chancellor, (a unanimous vote) has to carry weight.
“But I bought all the purple paint I could at Lowe’s, and I was going to paint purple everything that ever was blue, and even some things that weren’t. If you’re online, you’re going to see a purple and gold LSU – with Shreveport right underneath it – and we’re going big time. We were lucky in some respects, but we had the right model at the right time in the market. And we had a great team in place to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Putting the university under even more pressure, LSUS was up for review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges when Clark started.
The association had serious concerns about LSUS’s financial status, but by the time SACSOC came back around to LSUS, the organization issued a clean bill of health with no recommendations.
More students meant more money, and LSUS’s $81 million budget this year is nearly triple the budget from 2014.
After a time in which LSUS often left vacant faculty positions open, the University has hired more than 60 new faculty members in the last five years.
LSUS hadn’t undertaken major construction or renovation projects in 20 years, and Clark aimed to use the new revenue stream to renovate the LSUS campus and revitalize the face-to-face experience for the mostly undergraduate population.
Clark’s community connections came into play when deciding which facilities project to build first, and he used SUSLA’s student academic center as a model for LSUS’s Student Success Center on the first floor of the Noel Memorial Library – a location that was bemoaned at first.
That center, along with LSUS’s hyper focus on freshman student success, greatly impacted student retention.
“I don’t know where we’d be without the Student Success Center – I like to say it’s the wind beneath the wings of students who walk through those doors,” said Clark, who adds that this is the achievement of which he’s most proud. “So often the challenge to success is the lack of having people around them that have done the same journey.
“I have real pride in asking our first-generation students to stand at graduation and watch them achieve that goal. (Assistant vice chancellor for Student Success Initiatives) Angie Pellerin and her staff were already practicing many of the things the state discussed at the student success retreat earlier this year, and they’ve done a great job.”
Despite enrolling on average 700 fewer undergraduates per year in 2017-21 compared to the previous five years, LSUS has handed out just 20 fewer undergraduate degrees per year during that span.
In the spring graduation, 37 percent of undergraduates identified as first-generation students (defined as neither parent holding a four-year degree) while numerous graduate students also stood when Clark requested first-generation students be recognized.
Other state-of-the-art facilities followed – the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, IdeaSpace, Cyber Collaboratory, Pilot Education Center, Human Performance Lab and the Veterans Resource Center.
“I give tours to people who haven’t been on campus in 20 years, and they are absolutely blown away,” said Dr. Julie Lessiter, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives. “Larry has led this institution through some of the most difficult times this nation has faced, and yet we’ve had so many success stories regardless of the challenges.
“He believed in us even when we may not have believed in ourselves. He’s left a big impact on this university and this city that will take a long time to be replicated.”
TIP OF THE GRADUATION CAP
Graduation day is Larry Clark’s favorite.
He photobombs graduates and their families, and he’s a favorite to be pulled into pictures decked out in his purple regalia and hefty chain.
The 74-year-old never considers anybody a stranger, chatting up graduates as they walk across stage, asking where they are from.
In LSUS’s graduating class of 1,345 this spring (third-most of any Louisiana university), Clark shook hands with students from 49 states and 32 countries. Students traveled from India, Nigeria and the Philippines among other places to attend the ceremony in person.
“I love students, they’ll be who I miss the most,” Clark said. “A couple of years ago, a mother walked up to me with her daughter, who was graduating.
“The mother had a picture of her and I from her graduation when I was the dean of the business school, and she wanted the three of us to take a picture while she held her (original) picture.”
Abbigail Huddleston-Williams, Miss LSUS 2022, said Clark’s connection with students is special.
“I was walking across the graduation stage, and he shook my hand and thanked me for all my hard work,” Huddleston-Williams recalls. “He runs a whole university, so he didn’t have to take the time to do that. You’re not labeled as just another number here – he makes you feel like more than just a student.”
The final commencement speaker of the Clark era, Ronnie L. Bryant, encompasses LSUS’s core mission.
Bryant was a non-traditional student from Shreveport, earning his business degree while working full time at Western Electric (eventually AT&T). He pushed his way into economic development in Shreveport (the first African-American to serve in Shreveport’s office) and became one of the world’s most respected voices in the field, leading efforts in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Charlotte.
“Students like Ronnie are why I came back to LSUS,” said Clark, who was named the 2022 Business Leader of the Year by the Greater Shreveport Chamber.
Dr. Amanda Lewis, Director of Sponsored Research and Technology Transfer, remembers a recent graduation in which Clark went the extra mile after returning to campus.
“He was walking into the building with his normal clothes on, and he saw some graduates and their families in the crepe myrtles,” Lewis said. “He walked back to his car, put on his full regalia – bling and all – and took pictures with those graduates. That’s who Larry Clark is.”
Clark will say his biggest regret is not seeing undergraduate enrollment make a comeback in his tenure.
Multiple factors such as the pandemic and a drop in the number of students matriculating from community colleges have had an impact.
But with LSUS’s continuing reinvestment in its campus paired with the wildly successful online graduate programs, the university is primed for undergraduate growth.
LSUS is receiving a record number of applications for this fall thanks to expanding its recruiting footprint to the Dallas Metroplex with effective social media advertising.
“Under Larry’s leadership, we’ve had exponential growth in online students and have added academic offerings on campus that will attract more and varied students – like the work being done in cybersecurity,” said Wayne Brown, owner of Brown Builders Inc. in Shreveport and an LSU Board of Supervisors member. “Acquiring student housing (Pilots Pointe Apartments) from a private entity has allowed us to update that property and grow in the number of students living on campus.
“Larry is a workaholic who loves LSUS and its students, and I consider him a friend. I’ve been amazed to see how LSUS is impacting lives locally, across the state and beyond.”
The Security Operations Center, one of the projects resulting from two multi-million dollar grants in cybersecurity, is scheduled for a summer launch and will allow LSUS students to gain professional experience monitoring the University’s networks.
Other planned projects include a driving bridge to better connect students at the apartments to campus, exterior renovations to the science and technology buildings, a greenhouse and a science annex building to name a few.
“With the projects we’ve completed and the projects in the works, we’re doing everything first class to try and attract students, to support the community and to aid faculty,” Clark said. “We haven’t achieved what I had hoped in terms of the number of on-campus students, but I believe this university is in a really good position.
“I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to change our approach to what we’re doing.”
After Clark’s last day on June 30, one might find him on a North Carolina beach, probably taking an early-morning dip in the ocean to avoid the sun and surfers (and hopefully sharks).
But he’ll have his finger on the pulse of LSUS and of Shreveport, watching and cheering.
“I’ve had the time of my life,” said Clark, which included him performing a lip sync of the popular 1987 song from ‘Dirty Dancing’ as part of his final staff senate luncheon. “I owe it to all of the students, faculty, staff and community members I’ve come across.
“It’s been both an honor and a privilege.”