In an Uncertain Job Market, Sullivan Advocates for a Liberal Arts Education

The final event in the 2014-2015 Chancellor’s Colloquium Series featured Teresa A. Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia and an acclaimed sociologist of labor force demography. Sullivan’s talk, “Ready or Not: Preparing Students for 21st Century Careers,” focused on a point of national debate: the (dis)connection between higher education and the labor market.

Sullivan explained that universities face intense pressure to demonstrate the return on investment for students in terms of quality employment after graduation. Some academic fields are growing in response to industry and government needs, especially around data management. Both UC Davis and UVA are developing data science/studies programs to help students acquire these skills, but Sullivan admits that preparing students for real-time job success is like “shooting at a moving target.”

The rate of acceleration of the job market will continue to grow; Sullivan asked, “so how do we train students for a future we cannot see, how can students prepare for jobs that don’t exist today, in fields that will spring up from advancements which will be made in the future?”

“I believe the answer lies in the enduring values of a liberal arts education,” she answered.

Sullivan argued that a liberal arts education imparts the core skills required, and preferred, by any employer – skills like lifelong critical thinking, perception of the world around, thoughtful habits of mind, superior oral and written communications, respect for cultural difference and diversity, an ethical approach to decision making, and consideration of multiple perspectives before arriving at a conclusion.

“It’s not to argue against technical training,” Sullivan added, but to advocate that students acquire a broad base of knowledge in addition to deep specialization in a few fields. These “t-shaped student professionals” – broadly educated and cut across with specialty skill training – “can think clearly, solve problems, and communicate well at any job,” she said.

Sullivan explained that specialization does not necessarily need to be found in a college major. After building a strong intellectual foundation with a liberal arts major, students can do a more purposeful job in selecting their remaining college courses to focus on specialized skills.

Moreover, Sullivan encouraged students to pursue engagements outside of the classroom to build workplace skills. She relayed anecdotes about UVA students getting valuable leadership experience through their participation in campus-based activities, student clubs, and community activism.

In the final part of her presentation, Sullivan pointed out that while we “remain absorbed in the relationship between the university and the labor force, we neglect a crucial aspect of a college education – that it can be an instrument of human happiness.” Building on the oft-cited Thomas Jefferson idiom, “knowledge is power,” Sullivan finished the sentence in Jefferson’s quote – “knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, knowledge is happiness.”

Along with a foundation for employability, a liberal arts education offers training in critical thinking, cultural understanding, and intellectual curiosity that can “provide lifelong benefits in the form of a more fulfilling, socially-engaged, and happier life,” Sullivan argued.

In the Colloquium question and answer period, Chancellor Katehi asked President Sullivan about the worrisome issue of time-to-degree, the overemphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) majors, re-structuring general education requirements, and the feasibility of five-year professional degrees for undergraduates at her institution.

Katehi also asked Sullivan about student concerns over social issues as well as academic ones – referencing conversations with undergraduates who think social issues should not be isolated from the curriculum. Sullivan agreed with this concern and stressed that undergraduates, faculty, and administration all need to learn how to have difficult conversations about difference.

Sullivan suggested that faculty use classroom pedagogy to approach social issues with students, so that they learn to embody alternative points of views and practice empathy in their critical engagement with the world. A liberal arts education offers the most salient framework for doing this very important work.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies