Five questions for Susan Clarke

Professor, political science, SEEDS faculty director, CU-Boulder
By Staff
Susan Clarke

Susan Clarke

A new addition to the Residential Academic Programs (RAPs) at the University of Colorado Boulder opened to students this fall at Williams Village North. SEEDS (Social Entrepreneurship, Equitable Development, Sustainability) allows students a more intimate educational experience. Susan Clarke, who has been at CU since 1984 and is a professor in the Political Science Department, is the faculty director of SEEDS.

There are 12 RAPs at CU-Boulder, including a partner to SEEDS at Williams Village North called Sustainable by Design (SbD).

Even though the first students in SEEDS arrived just last month, the beginnings of the program go back about five years ago when a group of faculty, grad students and undergrads were awarded a grant by the Graduate School to support research on social entrepreneurship in non-Western settings, specifically Kenya and Nepal. The work, said Clarke, came to the attention of the Ashoka Foundation and led to CU being designated an Ashoka “Changemaker Campus” in 2009. That coincided with CU-Boulder’s interest in opening two new RAPs in the new Williams Village North residence hall. The research group, along with a faculty group working on a campuswide sustainability initiative, developed the SEEDS RAP proposal.

Clarke teaches political science courses and also is responsible for curriculum development and teaching at SEEDS. At one time, she says, she was a bit ambivalent about an academic career.

“I finally understood this was the right choice for me when I realized how much satisfaction I got from working with graduate students and undergraduates,” she says. “I’m an active researcher and love doing field work on local politics but, in the long run, your students are your legacy.”

1. How do RAP classes differ from others on campus?

RAPs offer small classes (18-20 students) right in the residence hall where the students live. By providing a small college experience where freshmen get to know faculty and students sharing their interests, RAPs offer a means for navigating a very large campus. SEEDS and SbD are lucky to have a faculty in residence, Professor Matt Jelacic from the College of Architecture and Planning, who lives at Williams Village North and teaches there as well.  Another innovative feature is that we have five graduate teaching resident advisers who live in the hall with the students, work with them in class, and are available for tutoring. RAPs are thematic: In Spring 2012, for example, Professor Susan Kent will be offering a Western civilization class that will be taught with an emphasis on sustainability and environmental history.

2. Besides the location of study, what makes SEEDS unique?

The introductory course at SEEDS (shared by SbD), called Social Innovation and Sustainable Communities, is interdisciplinary and problem-oriented. Our RAP faculty and students come from several different disciplines and colleges; in the introductory course, students work together in teams on projects demanding knowledge about sustainability, design and innovation processes. With its emphasis on real-world solutions, SEEDS students consider the social, political and economic context of problem-solving initiatives in the areas of sustainability, hunger, poverty and other complex issues. Our goal is to provide a fuller understanding of sustainability initiatives by emphasizing the importance of context and values in shaping the effectiveness of sustainability initiatives. The course focus is on problem-solving: Although there are lectures and readings as in any other course, at least 50 percent of the student time is spent working collaboratively to apply and share the knowledge and skills needed.

3. Why do you believe sustainability is so important?

We actually take a critical approach to thinking about sustainability and we define it broadly to include economic, social and cultural sustainability as well as environmental concerns. Innovation, design and sustainability are the key concepts framing our program. In contrast to a narrow, technical, rationalist approach to sustainability, we emphasize innovation and creativity as well as the concrete skills needed to address problems in contemporary society. In the absence of a coherent national sustainability agenda, state and local governments initiate many of the most interesting and effective sustainability strategies so our community focus is well-placed.

4. What are some of your current research interests?

My research centers broadly on urban politics and policy. I’m part of an international, interdisciplinary group of scholars analyzing neighborhood regeneration strategies in Europe and North America. I’m also part of a National Academy of Sciences study group working on improving budgeting for border security.  The latter project involved analyzing local strategies for implementing national border security initiatives, so I traveled – along with a CU grad student and my NAS colleagues – to several ports of entry in the Southwest to get a better understanding of how local communities adapt and carry out national policies.

5. What are your favorite activities outside the university environment?

I like to garden, but I live at 7,000 feet so it is challenging. My family lives in Colorado, Montana and Oregon, so I’m lucky to be able to spend fun time with them, especially my grandnieces Isabel and Olive. This summer I started watercolor classes, something I’ve always enjoyed but never made enough time to do in the past. I’m working on a series I call “Still Life With Pickles.” Pickles are much harder to draw than I realized!