Philip Clark AM reflects on a life devoted to others after receiving Honorary Doctor of Laws
Philip Marcus Clark remembers a story his grandfather told him, when he was very young, that influenced his own life in a profound way.
“My grandfather ran a chain of retail stores, including one in Wollongong,” Mr Clark said. “He often used his position to do good things. He once told me how he continued to pay people who worked in his stores during the Great Depression, out of his own pocket. I must have been seven or eight at the time and I confess my initial reaction was ‘why do that?’
“A lot of things my grandfather said to me when I was young still stick in my mind, including his response. I remember him explaining that, because we had a privileged life, we had an obligation to help people who haven’t been given much. That message stuck, but I regret I didn’t do much about it until later in life.”
Today, Mr Clark gives his time to many – he has been a member of numerous business and industry boards, government and research boards, education and university boards, as well as not-for-profit boards including the St James Ethics Centre, the Australian Indigenous
Mentoring Experience, the High Resolves Foundation, and the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Early Start Research Institute.
On Friday (26 April), he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from UOW. He was recognised for his outstanding service to the University, most notably through his involvement with the Early Start initiative, along with his significant leadership and support for research driven innovation at the national level.
“One of the first pro-bono organisations with which I was involved, that had a real impact on me, was a foundation started to honour a victim of the Port Arthur massacre. One of our young lawyers, Zoe Hall, who had gone down to Tasmania for the weekend, was killed. I had got to know Zoe in the office. She was a talented, lovely young lady. It was tragic,” Mr Clark said.
“Her mother was keen for Zoe to be remembered so we helped the family set up the Zoe Hall Foundation, which gave scholarships to law students in their second last year of study. Initially we gave those scholarships just to the best and the brightest, but Zoe’s mother, Margaret, changed that. She wanted the scholarships to go not just to the best students, but to students also in real need. Our foundation board agreed it was a great idea.
“A lot of those scholarships ended up going to students who were the first in their family to go to university. Seeing those recipients work so hard for their scholarships was really inspiring and so was seeing the difference the scholarships made to them and their families.”
Mr Clark is the first to admit that his early years were of relative privilege and limited ambition.
“I was more into having a good time and coasting through school and my early years at university,” he said.
After graduating with an arts degree from the University of Sydney in 1962 he started working for Shell Company in 1964, before enrolling in a Master of Business Administration at Columbia University in New York in 1969. He said, “that was when I got serious about my university studies and my working career”.
“I did law because my family thought it would be a good idea. But my Master Solicitor, to whom I was Articled, suggested that I might do better in business than law. I realised I just wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer at that stage of my life, so I took his advice. If I hadn’t gone to work for Shell and gone on to do my MBA, I don’t believe I would have had the opportunities I’ve had,” he said.
From the early 1970s, Mr Clark said he started working hard, and more importantly, started thinking about contributing to the community.
His role in the development of national law firms and his contribution to encouraging corporate involvement in community programs saw him appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (General Division) in 2007.
In 2019 Mr Clark was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (General Division) in recognition of his distinguished service to education, to research and infrastructure investment, and to the not-for-profit sector.
Mr Clark’s association with UOW began in 2012 when the Education Investment Fund (EIF) Advisory Board, which he chaired, recommended funding from the Australian Government’s Education Investment Fund Regional Priorities Round, to create Early Start.
“I really liked the Early Start concept. It made sense, using the Discovery Space to teach kids by experience and experiment, creating an early childhood research and teaching centre of excellence, and linking them to 41 Engagement Centres around the state in disadvantaged, regional and remote areas,” he said.
“I thought if they can get that to work it would be a really powerful tool to lift the overall standard of early childhood education and to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged children and children who live in regional and remote areas.
“The Early Start application was so different from anything else we had seen at EIF. It really was a transformative project and that’s what EIF was there to fund. So, I was an enthusiastic advocate for funding the project.”
After EIF was abolished in the 2014 Budget, Mr Clark was appointed to Chair the Early Start Advisory Board and since then has provided outstanding service to the University. He said with enthusiasm, “It has taken a while, but we are now getting impressive results from the Early Start engagement programs and from their excellent research. At this stage it’s probably best demonstrated by outcomes in the Illawarra region, but there’s no reason we can’t take it across the state, through the regional Engagement Centres, and eventually take it national.”
Mr Clark believes education is the key to Closing the Gap for Indigenous people.
He was on the board of AIME and is a keen advocate of the work the organisation undertakes, especially their concept of involving university students in one-on-one mentoring of Indigenous children.
“Before I joined the AIME board, I wasn’t really focused on Indigenous issues, even though I had grown up in the bush where I saw the problems in Indigenous communities. But the AIME CEO, Jack Manning-Bancroft, taught me a lot about the lives of Indigenous children and why it’s so important that they complete school and go on to university or VET. AIME worked. It has lifted school completion rates for Indigenous students to levels equal to or better than the general population. It really is special.”
Mr Clark said philanthropy is not just about donating money, “though of course that helps”.
“One of the most powerful and beneficial things people can do is to give their time and experience,” he said. “Realising that I benefitted so much from the wisdom and experience of my mentors inspired me to help and encourage others.
“Mentoring isn’t just about finding a mentor, it’s about being one too. Volunteering your time is one of the most rewarding experiences. When you are at university, particularly when you graduate, is a great time to start. My only regret is that I left it a bit late, I wish I had started earlier. I could have done a lot more.”
Mr Clark said he is very appreciative of the recognition he has received, particularly through his nomination for an Honorary Doctorate.
“It’s not just recognition of my contribution, it’s recognition for those I’ve had the privilege to work with. People are sometimes blasé about it. I’m not. To me it’s recognition that the community values what you and your team have done.”