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Hurley: Liberal arts give that extra edge

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Posted: Friday, June 21, 2013 12:00 am

From where I sit — in the president’s office at the University of Mary Washington — the liberal arts seem to be under attack like never before. Governors, CEOs and parents are questioning the end products that come from liberal arts institutions. The word on the street is: These graduates may be well-rounded, but are they employable?

My answer is a resounding yes. I think a too-narrow focus on first jobs for graduates has these folks missing the bigger point: Liberal arts institutions educate for lifelong success. That’s what gives liberal arts graduates an extra edge and that’s what makes an institution like the University of Mary Washington — a small public liberal arts and sciences university in Fredericksburg — a game changer.

I talk all the time to business leaders and recruiters, who say they value occupational skills secondarily; what they value more is broad intelligence. That anecdotal evidence is bolstered by a survey just out by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which found that business recruiters hire candidates who excel at critical thinking, analytical ability, teamwork and communications.

This is not unlike what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says in his recent update to his bestselling book, “The World Is Flat.” Friedman added a whole section on why liberal arts are more important than ever. “It’s not that I don’t think math and science are important,” Friedman wrote. “They still are. But more than ever, our secret sauce comes from our ability to integrate art, science, music, and literature with the hard sciences. That’s what produces an iPod revolution or a Google.”

Among those anxious about postgraduation employment, STEM is the new buzz phrase. Without question, these disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are essential if the United States is to retain its industrial and economic strength.

But let’s remember that STEM workers comprise only a small portion (5.5 percent at last count) of the workforce. Moreover, it is not a given that the only path to STEM job success is to obtain a degree in one of the STEM disciplines. About one-third of college-educated workers in STEM-related professions do not hold degrees in STEM. Also, two-thirds of STEM graduates work in non-STEM jobs.

Take Stephen Northcutt, a graduate of the University of Mary Washington, who is now president and CEO of The Escal Institute of Advanced Technologies. Before he began working in computer security, before he even went to college, Stephen served in the Navy. Later, he became a whitewater rafting guide, a chef, a martial arts instructor, a cartographer and a network designer. Stephen came to UMW to study geology but became intrigued by global mapping. His strength, it turns out, was not in the technical arena. According to one of his professors, “Stephen’s real strong point was being able to analyze the situation and know what to do.”

That’s important in any occupation. The people who run things — whether computer systems, companies or state governments — have to be analyzers, integrators and synthesizers. And those are all byproducts of a liberal arts education.

I find it interesting that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, both were English majors. Even Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations, got his start with a degree in journalism.

Gov. Bob McDonnell recently invited a group of higher education leaders to meet with five CEOs of major businesses to learn more about what businesses are looking for in college graduates. It was the last CEO to speak who had the greatest impact on me. She said that while STEM degrees are impressive, her company values most the skills and abilities that STEM graduates learn in those disciplines, such as the ability to think critically, to work in teams, to communicate effectively, and to retrieve and analyze data.

Like most liberal arts and sciences universities, the University of Mary Washington offers a robust STEM curriculum. We offer degrees in math and science, including biology, chemistry, computer science, geographic information systems, environmental science, geology, physics, as well as the social sciences, business and education. Our STEM education is built on a broad foundation that exposes students to the arts, humanities and social sciences.

We embrace the philosophy espoused by Steve Jobs, perhaps the ultimate techno-geek. When he rolled out the iPad 2, Jobs said: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

So, who brings together the scientists, the engineers, the designers and humanists? I think you know by now what I believe. Not every one of our graduates will go on to be a Stephen Northcutt or Steve Jobs. But they will be bigger, broader, more creative and fearless thinkers and doers. That’s what America needs most — and that’s what makes my heart sing.

Richard V. Hurley is president of the University of Mary Washington. Contact him at


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