More than a higher ed degree

Why every professional discipline can benefit from liberal education
By: | Issue: April, 2018
March 16, 2018

How you go to college matters more than where you go to college, says Bentley University President Gloria Cordes Larson.

In her book Prepared U (2017 Jossey-Bass), Larson says institutions that focus on professional studies do a fine job preparing students for a job after college. But they often fall short on building “lifelong learning skills” outside their fields of study.

The Bentley model, on the other hand, blends the rigorous business education for which the school is known with traditional arts and sciences courses. The result is a new kind of hybrid graduate, with hard and soft skills, and wielding the courage to take risks, the creativity to innovate and the savvy to excel in a competitive climate.

When you worked for a law firm, you would go around recruiting law students. You write that many had a little something extra. What was it you saw, and how did that affect you?

I was often sent to recruit for my large Boston law firm, and in one case they sent me to my alma mater, the University of Virginia, where I discovered the leading edge of the millennial generation.

Although these kids wanted to spend the summer working at a large law firm—a predictable path into the business world—they all had done interesting things with their lives, usually in the nonprofit sector. They were in the Peace Corps or Teach For America, lots of things that showed they had this broader world view.

It was the first generation that I thought really had “triple bottom-line thinking,” meaning “people and planet, not just profit,” and that they thought that those things are equally important.

On the way back, I had read Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, in which he writes about how college kids for the first time, generationally in a global workplace, would have the ability to effect real change.

With the access to information in this flattened world, and the access to the right education, this recipe could spawn a new generation of leaders who could do really important things.

I had also read Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, in which he said the innovation economy required left- and right-brain capabilities. Then I had heard that Bentley might be interested in an unorthodox president—and Lord knows that would be me.

I thought, “OK, this is a holistic experience that sends kids, as grads of a unique standalone business school, into the organizational world. What if we could figure out ways to deepen and integrate all of these components in effective ways for this next generation of leaders?”

When they finally made me an offer, I was thrilled to accept, because after decades of practicing law in one guise or another, I felt lucky to land an opportunity that brought me into a daily intersect with next-generation leaders who had the capacity to bring the right kind of moral compass and organizational abilities to bear.

Bentley was beginning to go down that path. Were you given free rein to go further?

My faculty and the team at Bentley were already of the view that deepening business and the liberal arts was the right way to go. In fact, we were studied by a project out of Stanford that the Carnegie Foundation had funded.

They came to solicit us my second semester at Bentley because they were trying to make the case that business students—now the largest major in the country—needed equal parts liberal arts.

We were early adopters of this thinking. We were also one of the first schools to take a place-based education both inside and outside the classroom, connect it with real-world opportunities and the things that you could do on campus. We wrapped all of this into first-year, out-of-the-gate planning for careers and state-of-the-art technology.

That was our “secret sauce” combination that I wrote about in Prepared U. I also singled out other schools that are doing their own distinctive versions of what the new marketplace requires.

What are some examples of what you saw?

Let me start with Babson—they’re supposed to be our big competitor, but I have nothing but good things to say about their version, which began with Olin College of Engineering.

Olin’s president, Rick Miller, had the idea that his kids needed to have liberal arts learning when they took their engineering degree out into the workplace. So Olin partnered with Babson and Wellesley, and they have this very distinctive ability to bring this team together—engineering, business and liberal arts—to provide this enhanced education.

Another example is Georgetown University’s School of Business. They do a semester-long project that helps students with their critical thinking and their writing skills, but it’s all set in a global and social framework.

These are the abilities and talents that entrepreneurs may typically encounter when they start a business, and they start freshman year thinking about that, which I thought was both novel and great.

Then there’s Clark University’s program that integrates classroom with mentoring, and then internships and workplace experiences. Although it’s more liberal arts-focused, theirs is not a dissimilar approach to ours.

There was a period recently when many people dismissed liberal education as a waste of time.

When the recession hit, a lot of liberal arts schools took a big hit, including many of the small and large elite liberal arts schools. The kids weren’t getting jobs. The unemployment rate for recent graduates was really high, and that initial reaction frustrated me because I felt these schools were barricading themselves in.

Rather than promoting liberal arts and lifelong learning as the lifeblood of higher education, it was almost like they were saying, “You won’t take us alive. We’re not changing.”

Fortunately that thinking has moderated significantly. Now I hear schools asking, “How can we preserve the tremendous value of liberal arts and at the same time attach it to pragmatic experiences?”

Almost everyone has a robust internship program now, even though those were scarce before the recession. Almost every school has its kids thinking about careers earlier. Almost everyone knows kids have to be facile in the latest technologies when they go into the workplace, regardless of what they’re studying.

And everyone understands that there should be some combination of inside and outside-the-classroom experiences.

Those are things that make for a richer college experience, and that will then lead you to look for similar types of experiences when you leave school.

Tell us about the Prepared U project.

Prepared U has been our brand since we went out into the marketplace. Data-driven as we are, after the 2011 recession, we launched a series of research projects to figure out what employers really want, how schools are graded, and what parents and their kids need and want.

We interviewed over 300 parents and students, as well as academics and a boatload of employers. We learned, not surprisingly in the wake of the recession, that higher ed had gotten a failing grade.

We then took it a step further and did a research project with Burning Glass, which is an aggregator of open jobs. We wanted to find out what the new jobs might look like.

You can’t go into an HR job that doesn’t also require social media skills as well as the ability to communicate well and work on teams. Everything is soft and hard skills. That’s the genesis of the Prepared U project—fully equipping our kids to enter the workplace but to also have happy, productive lives.

You’ve announced plans to step down in June after 11 years as president. What will be your fondest memory?

You know, I do feel like the accidental tourist—how did I stumble into this? I’ve been incredibly lucky and the students have made it unbelievably rewarding. But for me, I think the best part is seeing the success of what Bentley and some others have done. We all get it now.

In the beginning, I was screaming from the rooftops, “It’s an ‘and,’ not an ‘or.’ ” It’s not a natural split in the road here. Liberal arts continues to be incredibly important. 

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.