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A Peek Inside … Smith School Operations Director Darrell Claiborne’s Office

Cheery Space Features Games, Rare Barbies and Turtles Galore

By Karen Shih ’09

Darrell Claiborne sits in a chair in his office

Smith School Director of Operations Darrell Claiborne takes a student-centric approach to his job, which includes everything from card swipe access and bathroom maintenance to ordering new furniture and classroom construction in Van Munching Hall.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

The nail in the corner of Darrell Claiborne’s office isn’t a stray from the plastic sheet- and painter’s tape-covered renovations down the hall.

It’s the foundation of a team-building exercise favored by the director of operations for the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. The goal: Balance a dozen or so nails on one hammered vertically into a wooden board.

“It gets you to look at things differently,” said Claiborne. “You think, ‘There’s no way you can do that.’ But the trick is always thinking outside the box.”

That ability to creatively solve problems makes him a versatile leader. Need to find a place to retrofit a gender-neutral bathroom? Update wall outlets to include USB-C plugs? Get access to the mailroom after hours? Claiborne is the go-to guy for all of that in Van Munching Hall.

Over his eight years in the role, he’s particularly proud of overhauling the lobby and hallways, replacing bulky, heavy furniture with triple the number of easily moveable tables and chairs to encourage collaboration. And now that the School of Public Policy has moved into its new digs at Thurgood Marshall Hall, the Smith School is updating classrooms in that wing, including creating digital-first rooms that will make it easier to teach online classes.

Fresh from a move to a new office, Claiborne shares a few of the celebrity Barbies he’s acquired, what surprised him most about Prince when he visited the iconic singer’s estate and why he wants his student workers to play more games.

Wizard of Oz, Muppets, Baby Yoda and Star Trek character toys in boxes

Limited-Edition Barbies
“My collection doesn’t have a theme,” he said. “It’s just, ‘Who do I like?’” From Rosie O’Donnell to Lucille Ball and the casts of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Star Trek,” Claiborne’s collection of more than 130 mostly nontraditional Barbie dolls started with a gift from a college roommate. “It was a joke, because I said during a team-building activity that I wanted to get a massive Barbie collection because it would be worth a lot of money,” he said. Though he won’t disclose which one he owns is the most valuable, he does have several with Mattel’s collector-edition platinum or gold labels, including a rare Diana Ross.

Bookshelf with Coachella, Dolly Partin and Paisley Park items on one shelf, games on bottom shelf

Music Mementos
Next to the bright-pink Dolly Parton pretzel pie print and starry Coachella keepsake, a groovy purple-labeled bottle is from Prince’s Paisley Park, a bucket list location that Claiborne visited with his favorite aunt in September. “I didn’t realize how tiny he was!” he said, until he looked through Prince’s elaborate heels and costumes. “It was like looking at a kid’s shoes.”

Games on a table

Team-building Games
The nail challenge is his favorite, but he also has plenty of other options, such as the Rush Hour traffic jam puzzle as well as Uno and traditional card games, to test out how people react to stressful situations—and create closer bonds.

He used activities like this during trainings and retreats at previous roles at Shippensburg University and Trinity College, and now brings them to his newly expanded team of seven staff members and several dozen student workers.

“I’m hoping to create an activity zone in my office so people can come in, grab a few people and a game when people need a break,” he said.

Caricature of Darrell Claiborne

National Association for Campus Activities
As an undergraduate at Johnson and Wales University, he joined its equivalent of Student Entertainment Events and booked a young Dave Chappelle for just $800 (“I still have his original headshot, autographed”), the Ramones and Social Distortion, and got hooked on student services. For 25 years, he advised student groups on bringing big-name performers to their institutions, work that recently earned him the National Association for Campus Activities’ Founders Award, its highest recognition.

3D printed Testudo and other turtle figurines on a table

Table of Turtles
“I’ve really embraced that Maryland pride,” said Claiborne. It all started with the silver turtle shell, now mounted on the wall, and then “slowly but surely, more started to show up.” He acquired a turtle pin from then-President Wallace D. Loh, then got a windfall when a staff member left an entire box of assorted turtles behind when they moved. His favorite in his collection is the red and yellow one, but he also enjoys the 3D-printed replica of the bronze Testudo that students rub for good luck.

This is part of an occasional series offering a look inside some of the most interesting faculty and staff offices around campus. Think you have a cool workspace—or know someone’s that you’d like to recommend? Email

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