Nearing retirement, superintendent reflects on his tenure

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

During U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Clark’s four-year tenure as U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent, he delivered landmark achievements such as the Developing Leaders of Character Manual and the Let's Be Clear campaign to reset the culture around dignity and respect. For the Class of 2024, he will always be the “cadets’ superintendent.” Clark began earning that reputation when he spent more than a month sleeping in the cadet squadron dorms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having Gen. Clark as our superintendent these past four years has been like having a father figure in our corner, at the head of the charge and in the middle of the pack,” said Class of 2024 President Cadet 1st Class Adedapo Adeboyejo. “We knew he had our back when he visited all 40 squadrons during our freshman year. The Class of 2024 is honored to be graduating with Gen. Clark, and the Cadet Wing is beyond grateful for the time he spent with us all.”

The cadets’ superintendent
During his tenure, Clark often supported cadets at airmanship and athletic events. He brought care packages to injured cadets and hosted receptions. Clark said he remembers the 33 nights he spent in the squadron dorms as fondly as the cadets. Clark’s wife, Amy, met him in the dorms every night after work with 200 cupcakes and their goldendoodle, Cairo. Since air officers commanding and Academy military trainers could not go into the dorms during the COVID-19 lockdown, Clark felt he needed more awareness of how cadets were doing. Mostly, he wanted them to know that their leaders cared about them, he said.

“I learned a lot about what was going on in the dorms, but I also learned a lot about the cadets and how they thought about things,” Clark said. “It is important to be an approachable and visible leader. You have to let yourself be out there. I always tried to be that kind of a leader with the cadets. I always wanted to lead that way.”

Making Academy history
On May 31, Clark will retire after a 38-year U.S. Air Force career. He is the first African American superintendent. Likewise, he is the only one who previously served as commandant of cadets. The 1986 graduate and former Academy football star also commanded Third Air Force, Eighth Air Force and was Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration at Headquarters Air Force during his career.

When Clark assumed his superintendent duties, he had four priorities: develop leaders of character, prepare cadets for future conflict, foster a culture of dignity and respect, and defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

He still considers the first three of those goals just as relevant and important today.

Developing leaders of character
The Academy’s “prime directive is always developing leaders of character for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force,” Clark said. In March 2021, Clark initiated the Leader of Character Framework. He also responded to an increase in honor code violations by emphasizing honor and character across all mission elements, which helped reduce violation cases by 84 percent.

Preparing cadets for future conflict
Clark’s second priority was preparing leaders for future conflict and great-power competition. He established the Institute for Future Conflict in 2021 and hired the first director, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. B. J. Shwedo. Additionally, the $58 million Madera Cyber Innovation Center is expected to be complete in August 2024 and will offer a space to educate and train future officers as forward-thinking leaders in advanced technological warfare.

“I feel that we have done a good job of staying relevant with regards to war fighting,” Clark said. “We have developed war-fighting minors that help the cadets explore some of those areas. We built a Multi-Domain Lab that is as cutting-edge as anything we have here at the U.S. Air Force Academy. We have developed our cadets in space operations and have exercises that put all of our cadets into a position to be bold, innovative thinkers.”

Fostering a culture of dignity and respect
Third on Clark’s list was fostering a culture of dignity and respect. In 2023, he launched the Let's Be Clear campaign which focuses on actions, policies and programs that will re-center Academy culture. He directed the development of the campaign as a result of indicators from the 2022 Cadet Wing Defense Organizaitonal Climate Survey “Dignity and respect are essential in building teams and leading people and are connected to the first two goals,” Clark said. “We are all going to fight and win wars together. We can’t do that if we’re not leading with dignity and respect.”

Transforming the Academy
Under Clark’s leadership over the past four years, the Academy experienced significant construction progress. The $9.5 million Multi-Domain Laboratory opened in 2021. The $90 million modernization of Falcon Stadium’s east side is the facility’s biggest improvement effort to date. A new U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School dormitory is also in the works. Finally, the $240 million Cadet Chapel restoration project is almost 75 percent complete.

“I am very proud of the work that we’ve done with our construction efforts and transforming our campus, making it better for the cadets and our future,” Clark said. “Things have changed over the years, but they have also changed with society and in the Department of Defense.”

The next chapter
After retirement, Clark will move to Dallas, Texas, to begin his duties as executive director of the College Football Playoff. In addition to his status as a former college football player for the Academy, Clark believes his leadership experience at the Academy, and throughout his Air Force career, helped him in the selection process.

“It wasn’t my expertise in college football playoffs but the leadership experiences I’ve had in 38 years plus my four years at the Academy,” Clark said. “It was 42 years of learning how to lead and develop my own leadership style and philosophy. I want to see students succeed in their development and in the mission the institution has to help them develop. We will develop leaders of character in college football just as we have done at the Academy.”

Reflecting on a historic tenure
As he prepares to leave his office, Clark has a long list of accomplishments to reflect on, including the Leader of Character Framework, Let’s Be Clear and his unofficial title as the “cadets’ superintendent.” But he has a simple definition for his own view of his legacy.

“I was fortunate to be here for four years,” Clark said. “I would like my legacy to be that I left the Academy better than I found it. If I did that, I will be happy.”