Mississippi’s community colleges play an invaluable role in the economic development of our state. Each year our 15 community and junior colleges teach and train about 250,000 students. In addition to regular academic classes, our community colleges offer GED preparation, Adult education, workforce training, and technical educational. This past school year, the community colleges awarded 14,074 degrees which was an increase of 15% over the previous year. Other notable highlights include: one Holmes Community College’s Phi Theta Kappa chapters received the Most Distinguished Chapter Award for the second year in a row. Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society is the largest honor society in higher education with 1,270 chapters worldwide, and this award was their highest honor for a chapter. In 2011, the Aspen Institute named five of our state’s community colleges (East Central, Hinds, MS Delta, MS Gulf Coast, and Pearl River) among the top 120 community colleges in the nation.
I recently interviewed former Secretary of State Dr. Eric Clark who currently serves as executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board (MCCB) which oversees the state’s community colleges. Dr. Clark has a long and distinguished career of public service. A native of Taylorsville, he attended Jones County Junior College and received his undergraduate degree from Millsaps. He also has a master’s degree from Ole Miss and a doctorate in history from Mississippi State. He began his career as a high school and college history and government teacher. He was elected to the state House of Representatives where he served from 1980-1996, and he was elected to three terms as secretary of state from 1996-2008. He has been executive director of the MCCB since early 2008.
Clark noted that, “As a history teacher, I have studied the leadership of many influential historical figures including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.” He shared that he has also been influenced by many mentors locally including former Gov. William Winter. Clark emphasized that his basic philosophy of life is the Golden Rule. He stated, “ Whatever the situation is, I try to think of how I would like to be treated, and do the same for others.” Dr. Clark also noted, “I believe leaders should listen more than they talk, tell the truth when they do talk, do what they say, and be willing to compromise to reach a constructive consensus.”
I asked Dr. Clark about some of his most challenging obstacles as a leader. He shared that in the mid-1980s, he was a member of the “House 26” that challenged and eventually restricted the enormous power of the speaker of the house of Representatives. Clark also noted that when he was Secretary of State, “I worked to reconcile conflicting claims by the state and private interests to tideland properties on the Gulf Coast, and helped to permanently preserve for public use about 16,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands on the Coast.” In his current job, he has the challenging task to help secure funding for the state’s community colleges during recessionary times while enrollment is booming. He emphasized, “that is a challenge that I work at every day!” Clark’s advice for future leaders is to be wary of our culture of polarization. He believes that “future leaders should know that the extreme position is very rarely the best position — whatever the issue.” Clark and the MCCB have an important role in our state’s future in guiding and developing one of our state’s best assets — our community and junior college system. I hope they will continue the good work to make our state the best it can be.
>> Martin Willoughby, a business lawyer in Jackson, is a regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. Willoughby can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.