Clark rejoins faculty after 20 years as director of School of Labor and Employment Relations

Paul Clark never imagined becoming the head of the Penn State Department of Labor Studies when he joined the faculty in 1979. But he did just that in 2001 – and under his leadership the department, now known as the School of Labor and Employment Relations, grew to become one of the leading labor and human resources programs in the nation.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Paul Clark never imagined becoming the head of the Penn State Department of Labor Studies when he joined the faculty in 1979. But he did just that in 2001 – and under his leadership the department, now known as the School of Labor and Employment Relations, grew to become one of the leading labor and human resources programs in the nation.

Clark stepped aside as the longest-serving director in school history and rejoined the faculty in July.

“Paul has been an incredible leader who worked with colleagues, alumni, students and administrators to build a small department into a tremendous school serving students on campus and worldwide,” said Susan Welch, former dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and professor of political science. “The school has been an innovator in degree programs and has grown tremendously in enrollment, providing career and life opportunities for students around the globe. It is also one of the best units on campus in its ability to connect its students and alumni. Much of the credit for this goes to Paul for his vision, strategic thinking, and work with his colleagues and school family of alumni and students.”

“It has been a great pleasure working with Paul, even if for a relatively short period and under some tremendously challenging circumstances,” added current Liberal Arts Dean Clarence Lang. “The School of Labor and Employment Relations, and the college, have benefited from his experienced leadership, and I look forward to supporting him in his continuing scholarly and practical endeavors in support of trade union labor and better workplace relations more generally.”

Clark’s life-long commitment to labor education was inspired by the two years he spent working in a glass factory in Pittsburgh to earn money for his college education. 

“It was a really challenging workplace,” he recalled. “The work itself was hard – it was hot, it was dirty and the conditions were very unsafe. I was only there for a short time, but I kept thinking that if I had to work there for the rest of my life, I’d want conditions to improve. I don’t think there’s any question that experience gave me insights I still use today.”

While completing his bachelor’s degrees in history and economics at Bucknell University, Clark worked briefly for the United Mine Workers of America and became certified as an apprentice miner so he could work full time for the union.

“Mining is a tough, dangerous job. The miners’ union has been fighting for a hundred years to make the working conditions safer, and I wanted to be part of that,” Clark said.

An economic downturn in the mid-1970s kept him from finding a mining job, so Clark decided to attend graduate school. He earned a master’s degree in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University and then took a job there teaching training programs for union members. Less than a year later, he accepted a similar job with Penn State.

“I wanted to get back to working with coal miners,” Clark explained. “Since there weren’t any coal mines in upstate New York, I jumped at the chance to come back to Pennsylvania. As a labor educator, I was working out in the field, planning and teaching training programs for unions in every corner of western Pennsylvania. I interacted with workers in any job you could name.”

There was significantly more labor activity in the 1980s, and Clark organized night schools with two-year curriculums for AFL-CIO labor councils – organizations that bring together all the unions in one area – in Erie, Johnstown, Beaver, Butler and Greensburg.  

The curriculum tackled practical issues like collective bargaining, labor law and dispute resolution, but also included incorporated economics, sociology and political science elements. 

“It was rewarding work because union activists would voluntarily come to a three-hour class after a long workday so they could better advocate for their fellow union members,” Clark said. 

Clark earned his doctorate in public policy and administration at the University of Pittsburgh in 1986. In 1990, he took a position at the University Park campus of Penn State working in the Department of Labor Studies’ residential program but continued to teach labor education programs whenever possible. The labor outreach program was shut down due to a funding shortage in 2000.

Clark became the acting head of the Department of Labor Studies in 2001 and department head the next year. At that time, the undergraduate program had less than a hundred majors and the master’s program had fewer than 20 students. Today, the school boasts two undergraduate majors, three graduate programs and three integrated undergraduate-graduate programs at University Park with a combined enrollment between 400 and 500 students. It also offers a full range of both employment relations and human resource management courses.

Under Clark’s leadership, the department also became one of the first Penn State programs to offer degrees online. “We embraced World Campus early on,” Clark said. "Other departments didn’t think this online stuff was going to work, but we knew from our long-time outreach work that there were people across Pennsylvania and beyond who couldn’t come to campus because of work and family circumstances but still wanted to earn a Penn State degree.”

The online program’s success provided resources and revenue to hire more faculty and build the on-campus programs; it also allowed the department to reinstate the labor outreach program, something Clark believes is part of a land grant university’s responsibility.

“Unions play an important role in every democratic society by giving employees some voice in their work lives. And unions can only perform that role if their leaders are as informed and knowledgeable as their management counterparts,” Clark said.

The department also added management outreach programs during Clark’s tenure and started two research centers: the Center for International Human Resource Studies (CIHRS) and the Center for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR), which Clark said have become worldwide leaders in their respective areas of study.

Elaine Farndale, professor of labor and employment relations and Clark’s successor as director, emphasized the role Clark’s leadership played in the school’s growth. “Paul has been instrumental to all that the School of LER has achieved over the last two decades. His vision, dedication, patience and persistence have brought us all to where we are today.”

CGWR director Mark Anner, who has been with the school for 16 years, echoed those sentiments. “From my earliest days working with Paul, I could see he was a person with a vision and the determination and ability to turn that vision into a reality. He wanted to turn our department into a school and, in the process, grow all the work we do. Despite many obstacles and challenges, he achieved his goals. We are all benefiting because of his hard work.”

Beth Albright, current co-president of the School of LER Alumni Board of Directors spoke on behalf of the board. She said, “Dr. Clark has always recognized, and valued, the support and connection with the board as well as the connection between the board and the students. His collaborative and student-centric approach has been a pillar to advancing the long-term strategic plan that has led to the incredible success and growth of the department and its programs.” 

Clark believes that one of the biggest steps the program made during his tenure was making the transition from a department to a school. The term “school” is generally reserved for larger programs that are preparing students to work in a particular profession. To him, it was an important step that put LER on a level playing field with most of its academic competitors – almost all of which had been schools for many years.

pc1987“It would have been easier to just continue doing what we had been doing,” Clark said while reflecting on his twenty years leading the program. “But we had dedicated faculty and staff who were equal to any of the top programs across the country. Our alumni wanted our students to have the best experience possible and were willing to support the program in every way, including financially. We also had a dean who saw our potential and believed in us. We could have never accomplished as much as we have without the remarkable commitment of all of those people.”

Clark is quick to note he is not retiring and is looking forward to spending more time teaching and completing several on-going research projects. After 42 years with the school, he is also looking forward to being part of its next chapter.

“The school is fortunate to have Elaine (as its director),” Clark said. “She’s an internationally known scholar and a remarkably talented and dedicated person. I can’t imagine anyone better to lead us in the years ahead.”

August 26, 2021