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Personal Heroes: Inky Clark

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 30, 2012

Having written lately about Yale’s prominent role in eugenics, I’d like to make a paradoxical-seeming statement of gratitude to a character who was, at least superficially, built on the eugenicist’s model of the ideal man.

Russell Inslee “Inky” Clark Jr. is one of my personal heroes.  He was a graduate of the Yale Class of 1957 and a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society known for its plutocratic membership, including George H.W. Bush, Averell Harriman, and the prominent eugenicist and economist Irving Fisher.  Clark would go on to spend much of his career as headmaster of a prep school, Horace Mann in New York City.  But before that,  in 1965, he became director of undergraduate admissions at Yale, and he proceeded to re-make the university on a meritocratic model.

Instead of getting into Yale because you came from the right sort of family, or went to the right schools, or simply because you were entitled, old boy, you could now get in because you somehow seem to have earned it.   You could get in just because you were smart enough or because you showed the dim beginnings of a talent.

It didn’t matter, at least not as much, that you were a Jew, or a public school graduate, or in my case an Irish-Italian Catholic from a big and not so bright parochial high school in Newark, NJ.  Thanks to Clark and the president of Yale at that time, Kingman Brewster, it soon ceased to matter that you were not a white male.

Here’s how the Yale Alumni Magazine described what Clark achieved, in an article published around the time of his death in 1999 (my italics added).

But there was nothing inevitable about Yale’s move towards greater meritocracy and diversity, or the institution’s leadership among selective universities on these issues during the 1960s. These outcomes were a result of Kingman Brewster’s personal leadership, and his willingness to endure the opposition that came as a price for his idealism. Clark remembered that in the first year of his deanship, he was hauled before the [Yale] Corporation to report directly on his changes in admissions policy. One of the Corporation members who had “hemmed and hawed” throughout Clark’s presentation finally said, “Let me get down to basics. You’re admitting an entirely different class than we’re used to. You’re admitting them for a different purpose than training leaders.” Clark responded that in a changing America, leaders might come from nontraditional sources, including public high school graduates, Jews, minorities, and even women. His interlocutor shot back, “You’re talking about Jews and public school graduates as leaders. Look around you at this table”—this was at a time when the Yale Corporation included some of America’s most powerful and influential men. “These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here.”

Those days are of course now long gone, and our universities and the country are infinitely better places for it.

My own life has also been better than I had any reason to expect, and every so often I think about Inky Clark and thank him for it.  Once at a dinner party, I mentioned to a friend that Inky Clark was the reason I got into Yale.  And the friend, whose close relative A. Whitney Griswold had been president of Yale in the 1950s, immediately replied, with a smile, “And he’s the reason I didn’t.”

I think it worked out o.k. for both of us.

What Inky Clark wrought also worked out well for a great many other people, of all types, as I am reminded by this joyous, poignant note written  by a new Yale graduate who died this past weekend.

UPDATE:  This Sunday The New York Times Magazine is publishing a story by a Horace Mann graduate likening Clark to the Catholic hierarchy, in his failure to deal with sexual abuse of students by subordinates at the school.  Here’s an excerpt:

Horace Mann has referred to Inky Clark as “a man of true valor.” I remember him that way, too. Years after I graduated, I learned he even reached into his own pocket to pad out my scholarship to Horace Mann, then he did it again for my college, when Eric discreetly warned him that my family might fall short.

Inky was in so many ways a hero, a man who felt the urgent obligation of history and rose to answer its call. But he was also a man who shied away from the most urgent obligation of all. He pried open the doors of insular institutions, making an elite education — and all the benefits it confers — available to students who would never otherwise have had a shot. But then he stood at the helm of one such institution while teachers allegedly betrayed their students in the most damaging ways.

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