Interview with Keith Clark, Executive Director UWC

The following is a transcript of a conversation with Keith Clark, Executive Director of UWC from 4th March 2008 in the International Office in London. The interview adresses current UWC affairs (eg. development in LPC), as well as general issues regarding the next steps of the UWC movement and coming challenges. Word document of the transcript.

United Words: How long have you worked for the UWC-Movement and why did you join it?

Keith Clark: I have worked for UWC for nearly ten years and had initially a communications role, but I began my current job as the Executive Director at the end of 2003, beginning of 2004. So I have been doing it for almost four years now. And how did I come to it? Well, when I applied to my communications job initially, it was really “just a job.” I was previously working in education, in the British university system in a job, which involved international work and communications. I knew of UWC so it seemed a logical next step. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago, when did it stop being “just a job”. That was probably at some point in the first year.

The interview as word document

UW: Did a specific key event cause this change of perception?

KC: No, just the more you see, the more you get sucked into it, the more you realise what a remarkable organisation it is with remarkable people. By that I don’t only mean students and graduates, but also the supporters, National Committee members  and staff in the colleges, who are the unsung heroes of the organisation. Not only what a remarkable organisation it is, but probably more importantly what enormous potential there is, because I believe, as most people who are involved with UWC do, that education has to be the key to all change.

UW: What are your responsibilities as Executive Director of UWC?

KC: It’s perhaps easier to start by saying what’s the role of the International Office. The role of the International Office covers three main areas. One is communications. Up until very recently that has primarily been a job of internal communication. Fostering the sense of there being a single international organisation. Students and graduates  have a  local affinity to their National Committee and College, but they are also aware of their belonging to a larger international organisation. That’s now changing. We need to be looking much more into external communication to reinforce fundraising and to reinforce the sort of global profile that will enable our ideas to have more impact. The second area of our work is what we rather vaguely call coordination, but we primarily mean the coordination of the National Committee system and the many relationships within the organisation.  Additionally we are focussing on the relations between the Colleges and the National Committees, if you think of that being the engine of what drives UWC forward, as they select students who come into the organisation. The third area is to act as a secretariat for the International Board and that’s where my day-to-day role focuses. That’s increasingly about the Board’s responsibility for the development of the organisation as a whole, the strategic development, growth, development of the impact of the organisation, educational development, defending the ethos of the organisation. That’s where it overlaps with communications pretty much – in the establishment and defence of a UWC brand. That’s broadly speaking what I do, but what I actually do a lot of my time is talk to people. Either on the phone or via emails, about issues, problems, difficulties, challenges, good news around the organisation.  So we as an office and probably more particular my role, is a sort of a hub position. People sort of gravitate towards us. That’s a great position to be in. We get to know an awful lot of what’s going on.

UW: Do you believe the current structure of the International Board of Governors allows it to function and work efficiently or do you think there is potential for improvement?

KC: There is always potential for improvement, but there is definitely potential for improvement at the moment. We have a structure which is quite cumbersome and it’s quite a blunt instrument for decision-making. As we need to be making decisions more swiftly in some areas, the idea of a big Board of up to 40 people, which meets twice a year, is more difficult to sustain. It’s also the case as a British based charity that meeting only twice a year puts us on the margins of what is legally acceptable. So the proposals that we are considering at the moment are to have a leaner Board structure, a Board of probably about 15 people, which can meet probably four times a year and then to have a bigger Council, which will meet once a year and will advise the board. But crucially the Board will have a degree of accountability to it, because the Council will elect the members of the Board. The Council can then spend time discussing issues of growth and strategy, values and principles and so on. Whereas at the moment, where we have Board meetings twice a year, we do some of that, but we also have a very, very hefty agenda. So the Council can concentrate on these bigger issues, and can make recommendations to the Board. The Board can then be concerned with the implementation of those issues. Linked to that we would need to develop our Board committees (finance, education, national committee) more, which could draw their members from the Council.  In the future we probably have to look into a communications and fundraising committee. So the whole package of proposals will be better for decision making, the bigger Council will also provide opportunities for more input. Not just for the people in the meeting, but through the use of some kind of consultation panels they can communicate with parts of the organisation. So you are not giving people direct input to it, you are not creating a representative structure, which I think in our organisation would be difficult, but you are hopefully facilitating a greater perception of participation and a genuine route through which people can make their views heard.

UW: How should the International Board be allowed to interfere in college life?

KC: Well, at the end of the day the International Board has only one sanction and that’s to disaffiliate a College. But implicit in that has to be the idea that it is totally at the extreme and you would want to do everything you could not to get to that point.  However, the tension is of course that each College is established autonomously within its own jurisdiction and its own board of governors, which must be the case unless we had a massive central structure. It couldn’t operate any other way. There have been few times in the last decade when there has been any form of formal intervention on behalf of the Board. But of course what tends to happen is issues get discussed at Board level, get discussed between Chairs and Heads of Colleges. Sometimes simply through discussion, sometimes through the exertion of a bit more peer pressure and sometimes with the Board making it clear, perhaps not making a big scene about it, but making it clear, that it is not happy with the way a certain issue is developing.  

UW: Are the recent events in LPC UWC in Hong Kong an example for the International Board not making a “big scene”, but stating that it is unhappy with the current situation?

KC: Well, its first response was, to do what it must do in all those situations, when issues were brought to its attention by the LPC community, it had to push the issue back to the College board. It was then the case that when there continued to be complaints, we became aware at the international level. We needed to take it up, still sort of behind the scenes, but nevertheless taking it up with the College Board. In fact it was on our agenda of things we needed to address with the new College Chair,just at the time everything flared up with the circulation of emails and the press article. The press article came out coincidentally on the day that the Board was meeting in India and that’s why we produced the statement to confirm the two contradictory facts: that we are absolutely committed to our mission and values including the celebration of difference, and at the same time we have to recognise the right of the College to act in accordance with local laws certainly, and for the most part local values and cultures as well, and that we would work with this College as with any College to support them as they are trying to marry those two things together.

UW: One of the UWC-principles is international and cultural understanding. How do you think is it possible to understand each other if the UWCs adapt to their local cultures and values? Couldn’t the International Board recommend to the LPC Board and community to address the issue of same-sex-marriages, encourage a debate among staff and students?

KC: I think the more significant value from the Board’s point of view is the value of the celebration of difference. At the same time the level of international understanding that we are committed to does require compromises to be made. I am not saying it is correct in this case to make a compromise, but we know that at times that is required. I think that it will be important for UWC in the future to address a deeper philosophical issue of what it means by concepts like intercultural understanding and where local values, local cultures suggest a conflict with our values. That is not a discussion we can have now, that is not a discussion we can have in six months time. You have to get many voices contributing to that discussion. For now we live with that tension. To a greater or lesser degree all of the Colleges have to manage that balance. For some that’s easy: probably for Canada, for the UK, to some extent in the US, although I am sure there are tensions. In other countries it is more problematic. In Swaziland we know it is managed constantly as it is probably in Singapore.

UW: Is there a line you could think of where UWC would have to stand up saying this is beyond our willingness to compromise and accept local values and cultures?

KC: There must be, but to be perfectly honest, we don’t know where that line is at the moment. And I also think that that line is a moving line. I would say that as we become more united, the Colleges realise that a problem in one College has the potential to impact on their name and reputation and are therefore more willing to see that involvement being at an earlier stage than they would have done when there was much less unity within the organisation.

UW: Would that be something you take from the LPC controversy to further discussions?

KC: Potentially. It is one of those issues where that line, the line between involvement and non involvement is not a line we could create a policy on, because it will vary on a case to case basis. I think it might even be foolish to try to create a policy on that and tie your hands in relation to a future situation.

UW: Do you think the introduction of an international Code of Conduct following the example of many international companies, could provide some sort of ethical guideline for the different colleges in future situations?

KC: Yes, this is interesting. The College Heads have talked at their most recent meeting about the idea of a Code of Conduct primarily for students – so that there could be a basic frame work of expectation which would be the same in all the Colleges. Of course it would need to be subject to local interpretation and somebody said last night they [UWC Swaziland] inevitably have more rules, not only because of where they are and their proximity to the capital city of Swaziland, but also because they have younger students on campus. But if there could be a common Code of Conduct it would have great strengths. I do not think it would be much more of a step forward if we turned that into a more general statement of conduct. We’ll see how this discussion turns out. This is a new idea, but I think a quite exciting one and another way of binding us together.  

UW: If the movement would have had a general Code of Conduct the answer to the next question might have been easier. It regards Htet Tay Za, son of Tay Za, according to US President Bush: “an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma’s repressive junta”, who attends the United World College of South East Asia. Rumor has it that he expressed himself last November with the following words in an email: “US bans us, we’re still fucking cool in Singapore. We’re sitting on the whole Burma GDP. We’ve got timber, gems and gas to be sold to other countries like Singapore, China, India and Russia.” Assuming that would be true, would the Int. Board react?

KC: Although I don’t know any details of the situation, I did know that there was a situation colleagues in Singapore had been investigating which was connected with somebody sending emails purporting to be from somebody else. That might be this situation. So I wouldn’t want to take that statement at face value. Now, if it was proved that was being said and publicised then I think that we would expect that the College would take some sort of action. If they weren’t taking action, and we would be aware of the situation, which we of course now are, I would be very surprised and we would start to ask questions.

UW: Could you imagine how that kind of action could look like?

KC: This clearly is one where we would have to leave it to the College to investigate the details of the situation and we would expect them to act in such a way that they are able to defend themselves and UWC’s name, because that College, more than any other, wears the brand of a UWC, because in Singapore people just refer to the United World College. It’s the first time I have heard what you just quoted, it’s an extraordinary statement. I would first of all want to be absolutely certain that there wasn’t something doing the rounds which was actually fraudulent.

UW: Assuming a multinational company offers to donate several million pounds to a UWC, but wants in return to be mentioned on every single publication of the college – would you accept that offer?    

KC: I don’t think it is unacceptable if the association is an appropriate one. We already have it. We have the Mahindra United World College of India and the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West. I, personally, would have reservations in the future about a name of a company or the name of an individual being associated with a college. But that would be purely because of pragmatic reasons, because I think it becomes a bit of a hostage to our fortune in the future in terms of fundraising. We had for example, when the College in Costa Rica was opening, someone suggesting naming the College “Grieg United World College” after the substantial Norwegian donor Per Grieg and the Grieg Foundation. We knew that Mr. Grieg wouldn’t want that, but I also opposed that on the grounds that the initial donation – extraordinary thought it was – was for five years and was not about the longer-term security of the College. And it is perfectly possible to believe that another donor wouldn’t give to a college if it is assumed that the association with a name implied that it was financially stable.  So I think you could not legislate against this. As long as the College and the College board is comfortable with the association I think you have to do what you can to ensure your financial survival.

UW: Would Coca Cola be an acceptable UWC sponsor?  

KC: We don’t have an ethical fundraising code internationally because we’ve not had a tradition of international fundraising. That’s an area we are now starting to look into.  And we will take that in the course of the next two, three years very seriously. I wouldn’t be comfortable with Coca Cola attaching itself to the name of a college, but that is my personal view. That has to be discussed.

UW: Reportedly so called “hard labour”, which includes gardening, is used in one of the colleges as a form of punishment. Do you think this is appropriate?

KC: The term they use is “useful labour”. I think it’s absolutely fine within the context of that College and within the general context. It’s not a demeaning thing. It just means that somebody is giving up a bit of their time in order to do some work that has to be done. My one reservation about it was the danger of it overlapping in any way with service activities, which would actually demean service, but I think the distinction is clear.

UW: Concluding the conversation and looking into the future, what are the main challenges UWC faces at the beginning of the 21st century?

KC: Undoubtedly growth and managing growth, because clearly most people would agree that we have to grow. That does not only mean growing through new Colleges. It could mean growing through increased impact, for example through one of the most remarkable programmes around at the moment, the Akshara Programme in India, where the education level of the whole area around Mahindra UWC is enhanced. It’s absolutely remarkable. Before the programme started, the highest results, which where achieved by students in the villages around the College in the state exams, were around 50 percent, now kids are regularly getting ca. 80 percent.  I would also like to see, and that could be one of our major challenges, growth through a different type of outreach. Three week short courses could for example give many more people access to UWC than we are able to provide via college education. But we cannot afford growth to impact adversely on the existing colleges within the organisation. We’ve just given approval for Maastricht to become the 13th college in 2009. But we’ve had to be absolutely sure that fundraising is at such an advanced state that they won’t impact on the rest of the organisation.  That’s very easy to say, but very difficult in practice, because of the National Committee system. In a way the National Committee system is sort of a web that binds everything together.  National Committees like the Germans [who selected the interviewer] that do effective fundraising, have the power to move their scholarships and that could hurt one part of the organisation.The second challenge is fundraising and creating a more financially-secure structure and I think this has to be a responsibility at College and National Committee level and at international level. As well as that being absolutely necessary for the financial future of the organisation, funds that flow through the centre of the organisation cement more solidly the concept of the organisation and some of the other issues you mentioned become easier to visualise. Third is our global profile. We need UWC to be much better known for two reasons. One is fundraising, but also because our mission is not only about what we do. But it’s about the importance of education for creating peace and sustainability. You don’t have to do that in a United World College in order to achieve that end. So the more people that know about us and our model of education, the more we can have an impact.  We shouldn’t be worried about the fact that many international schools have tried to emulate parts of the United World Colleges. Fantastic! Imitation in this way must be the sincerest form of flattery. It really does annoy me when people seem determined to preserve our status, because we need to encourage people to copy what we believe is good. Fourth is the very exciting idea of developing a UWC Diploma that can operate alongside the IB or can operate alongside another academic curriculum if that was more relevant in another part of the world. If you put it alongside the IB there would be a considerable overlap, but if you put it alongside a different curriculum it might be that the UWC Diploma would soak up much of what is currently done in the whole of the IB model. And it would work alongside a vocational diploma – for example in Simón Bolívar [United World College of Venezuela] or in a college which is proposed at the moment in Tanzania. The idea of a UWC Diploma, which doesn’t add on any more work, will put some framework around what you do. Although it would be offered locally it would have a degree of consistency across the Colleges. It could be the most significant definition of the substance of the UWC brand. And finally fifth: undoubtedly raising the ability of our National Committees to deliver what they want to deliver, and what we know they want to deliver. The National Committee system is the most extraordinary resource; the volunteer effort, which goes into it is almost unbelievable. And we need to make sure this is all harnessed in the right way and that we can give as much support as is needed by that system to deliver students into the Colleges. But also about themselves being beacons for UWC in their own countries.

UW: What was your most significant experience in your life working with UWC?

KC:  Perhaps one of my emotional experiences was in in India just a few weeks ago when we went to Mumbai for a reception and there were some student performances. As well as College students performing there was a group of students from the Akshara Programme. Kids, who perhaps ordinarily all their lives would never have even gone to Mumbai. And yet here they were performing a gumboot dance accompanied by the African students on voice and percussion. They did fantastically well. Why on Earth should these kids in a rural part of India have had any exposure to an African gumboot dance, any exposure to those students? When all the performers came on stage at the end, I found it tremendously moving. Not because of what I saw, but because I knew about the programme. I also must say that I found it an enormously significant moment when we adopted the new UWC Mission and Vision at the International Council in Singapore in 2005. It was a turning point because we had put in place a mission statement that gave us ambition, was bold and encapsulated what we wanted to do. But we also had the Vision objectives that would give us a clear agenda. What I found particularly remarkable was the rate at which the mission statement caught on – you know it’s in popular currency when it’s used against you in complaints! The speed with which it caught on really did convince me that we had done the right thing. 

UW: Keith Clark, thank you very much for your time and good luck with the coming challenges.

The questions were asked by Valentin Jeutner (Germany, AC06-08)

– United World College Student Magazine – 

One thought on “Interview with Keith Clark, Executive Director UWC

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