Clark University: a History of Challenging Convention

Last Friday, Clark University was just one of many colleges across the United States to publicly announce that students who are involved in protests against gun violence will not be penalized for their actions, and it will not impact their admission or enrollment status. From the school’s Twitter:

“A statement to future Clarkies from President David Angel: We’re aware many high school students around the U.S. plan to engage in peaceful walkouts over the coming weeks to protest gun violence. Some high schools indicate students may face disciplinary action for doing so. Working toward meaningful change on issues of consequence is central to who we are as a community, as expressed by our motto, “Challenge Convention. Change Our World.” If you’re considering Clark, we doubt you’re waiting for our permission to stand up for your beliefs.”

But this certainly isn’t the first time – nor the last – that Clark students and professors have been intent on disrupting the status quo.

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Clark University launched in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts as the first all-graduate university in the United States. In 1908, the first woman earned a PhD in psychology from the school – only 14 years the first woman in the United States to earn the same degree. At the invitation of university president G. Stanley Hall, Sigmund Freud delivered his famous Clark Lectures at the school in 1909, which first introduced American audiences to his ideas of psychoanalysis, and was his only set of lectures in the country.

Freud in America
Sigmund Freud (front, left) visited Clark in 1909, pictured here with university president G. Stanley Hall (center) and Carl Jung (right).

Before he was considered the father of modern rocketry, Robert H. Goddard was a student at Clark. After earning his B.S. in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute just across town, Goddard received a M.A. (1910) and PhD (1911), also in physics, from Clark. After graduation, he registered several patents: the first vacuum tube to amplify a radio signal (#1,159,209), a multi-stage rocket fueled with solid explosive material (#1,102,653) and a rocket fueled with solid explosives or liquid propellants (#1,103,503).

Goddard began as a research fellow and part-time physics instructor at Clark University in 1914, which allowed him to test more rocketry experiments. While Goddard was still head of Clark’s physics department, the school recognized the importance of his vision and allowed him to travel extensively, devoting almost all of his time to his rocketry research. Robert Goddard would go on to register a total of 214 U.S. patents (most posthumously), whose innovations directly led to modern spaceflight. Clark University’s Robert H. Goddard Library is named after him, with a sculpture out front that depicts the flight trajectory of his first liquid-fueled rocket.


Clark continued to host radical speakers to expose its students to new perspectives. In 1963, the student director of the Worcester Student Movement, D’Army Bailey, invited Malcolm X to speak at Atwood Hall. D’Army Bailey would go on to become a lawyer, circuit court judge, civil rights activist, author, and actor. He founded the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991, as well as received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Clark and spoke at my commencement ceremony in 2010.

While I was in undergrad at Clark University from 2006 – 2010, I saw first-hand how the students can make their voices heard. The Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise was formed in 2007 to focus the school’s research efforts to address social concerns, and to improve the effectiveness of public policy. In 2009, the Institute co-sponsored the National Conference on Liberal Education and Effective Practice, the first symposium of its kind that looks at how “to include an emphasis on connecting ideas with action.”

In the spring of 2009, the student group Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights requested permission to bring political scientist, activist and professor Norman Finkelstein to Clark for a lecture on the Gaza War happening at the time. The group was denied by the president because he felt Finkelstein “would invite controversy and not dialogue.” Students reacted by publicly protesting on campus, launching a petition campaign and asking teachers, students and alumni to reach out to the president. The president’s initial rejection was reversed, and less than a month later, Finkelstein spoke to an audience of several hundred on the last day of spring classes.

In November 2016, the group Worcester Socialist Alternative (photo credit), led by Clark students, organized a city-wide rally in front of City Hall.

Clark University attracts a certain type of student, one who is an engaged and thoughtful learner eager to make a difference in their community. Like any large institution, it can be difficult to remain in-touch with current events and the issues that students care about, and dramatic change can take a long time. This is not an example of jumping on a hot-button issue bandwagon, because protest and action have a long history at Clark University; it makes sense that the students who are attracted to the school would not be afraid to “challenge convention.” Today, I am proud to be a Clark alum and I commend them for their early and decisive stand against gun violence in American schools, and for encouraging students to act for what they believe in.

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