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Speeches

Liberal Education: A Unifying Mission for the 21st Century University

Welcoming Remarks by UW System Board of Regents President Mark Bradley

Thursday, November 20, 2008
University of Wisconsin System Conference
Pyle Center

Thank you, President Reilly, and good afternoon everyone.

I come to the subject of this conference from three different perspectives. First, as a member of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, I am daily advocating to legislators, community leaders, parents, students, and sometimes even to educators, how our public universities can foster relevant learning experiences to prepare students for a 21st-century economy. Second, as a business lawyer I have represented owners of family businesses for thirty-one years. Despite what candidates for elected office, both Democrats and Republicans, might want us to believe, the number one topic on the minds of these business owners is not taxes. Rather, they talk about how fiercely competitive their businesses have become, and how they have to think nationally or globally, rather than locally. Then they describe their workforce needs, using language very similar to the LEAP program’s essential learning outcomes.

Finally, as the father of four children who recently obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees at four very different colleges and universities, I have seen firsthand the different approaches to higher education that these institutions have taken. I also have heard our children and their friends speak about their attitudes toward their undergraduate experiences, and whether they think those experiences are relevant to their careers.

When someone brings up the topic of liberal education, what comes to my mind is the need for students to receive a 21st-century education -- the need to focus on real learning outcomes.  The first thing I did after Governor Jim Doyle asked me to serve on the Board of Regents was to read The History of American Higher Education, by John Thelin. What I learned, of course, is that the liberal arts and sciences have been the foundation of American higher education since its origins in the late 18th-century. At its heart, it’s a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement.

From what I see and hear around our state, and from my own experience, this kind of education is more relevant today than ever.  We are now preparing students for jobs, for careers, that may not even exist yet. People get paid a lot of money to predict what’s coming around the corner, but the fact is, so far no one has developed a reliable crystal ball. And if, as Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We cannot build the future for our youth – but we can build our youth for the future,” then it’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to enable our students to connect learning with real life, to provide them with durable and transferable skills, to equip them for success over the long-term in a volatile global economy.

A liberal education does that by nurturing the skills that my son’s Fortune 500 employer told him were important when he began work last year after receiving his MBA; that is, critical thinking and communication skills, problem-solving ability, adaptability to change, and being able to work with and among diverse groups of people. My son’s employer is not alone; many other employers need people with these kinds of skills.

Not long ago, the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed employers across the country to determine what they’re looking for as they hire new employees.  The survey showed that employers tend to focus on finding graduates with the right skills – rather than the right major.  Almost every employer will tell you, “We can always provide the technical training to whoever we hire.’’  Employers now are looking for the higher-order skills that you acquire through a liberal education.

And research shows, incidentally, that these kinds of skills are relevant for all professions.  I can assure you that they are important in the legal profession.  But they are also important for engineers, for nurses, for teachers, and for business people.

I mentioned the importance of having the ability to adapt. The data suggest that my four children, ages 23 to 28, and other people now entering the workforce, will have on average ten different jobs or careers in their working lifetimes. It’s a real-world case of Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Only those who can adapt will survive … and thrive.  

This ability to adapt is important not just to the individual, who is looking for an education that has a shelf life beyond his or her first job. It’s also important for our nation to have a workforce that is able to respond nimbly and appropriately to changing economic demands. It requires being able to understand the implications of global interdependence, to grasp complex problems and find innovative solutions.  And I’m not just talking about skills in science and technology. We need engineers and scientists, of course. But we need engineers who know how to communicate. We need scientists who can be productive team players. And we need computer programmers who can connect people and real-world issues with the products that they’re working on.

None other than The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper of American business, addressed this challenge in an editorial last year. The paper urged American higher education to look beyond the ultimately narrow focus of the STEM disciplines. Instead, it called for including “reasoning, creativity and knowledge across a dozen subjects,” as essential components of a 21st-century education. It went on to say, “The liberal arts make us ‘competitive’ in the ways that matter most. They make us wise, thoughtful, and appropriately humble. They help our human potential to bloom. And they are the foundation for a democratic civic polity, where each of us bears equal rights and responsibilities.”

What’s clear to me, in all this, is that we need to speak clearly and broadly about our vision for student accomplishment and learning outcomes. 

First, I think we must respect the different histories and missions of our campuses.  Recognizing these differences, I think the regents can communicate to the System president, to the chancellors and their provosts, and to the faculty and student organization leaders, that we are encouraged by AAC&U’s research and the data it has collected from interviews across the country. All of these constituencies need to hear us state our belief that the economic and social future of our state and nation depends on making LEAP’s essential learning outcomes priorities on our campuses.

Then we have to step back and ask: How can we do it? What policies and practices do we have to change to enable changes on our campuses? What statutes does the legislature have to change? I realize that this is a very big and sensitive discussion to have among these constituencies. 

The second point I would like to make is that now is the perfect time to act. This is a perfect time in Wisconsin to emphasize to students and the decision makers in our State Capitol that the diploma itself is not the goal. It’s not enough to just get students in the door and then out again. We have to pay close attention to what kind of education we give to students, to the teaching, and above all, the learning. 

We have just heard President Reilly talk about some of the initiatives that UW System and its institutions, along with the AAC&U, are involved with, as we move forward on the liberal education agenda. We have also heard how ensuring that our students have the necessary education and background to become capable, productive citizens aligns with the UW System’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin.  

There is plenty of data supporting the idea that higher education has a high rate of return for society as a whole. We have known for years that a college education leads to much higher earnings over a lifetime and that a more educated workforce means greater tax revenue, which supports better standards of living. Studies consistently show that higher education is linked to increased civic engagement, from voting to volunteerism, and greater understanding of people from differing backgrounds and opinions. 

So while we need to continue to work diligently towards improving access and affordability, retention and graduation – all important keystones of the UW mission and our Growth Agenda for Wisconsin – we also need to be concerned with the “what” of college, as well as the “how.”  To me, the next logical step is to combine that discussion with what type of learning matters; in other words, the need for a 21st-century education.

President Reilly mentioned that you will hear from Carol Geary Schneider later in the conference. Carol is the one who lit the LEAP fire under me. I want to close by sharing something that Carol wrote in an article published in 2003. The date is important because this was prior to the development of the LEAP Campaign, and prior to the UW System’s articulation of a reinvigorated liberal education as a priority.

Carol named what she saw around the topic of liberal education as a “conspiracy of voluntary silence.” She wrote that in this conspiracy of voluntary silence, there was “very little public understanding or even awareness of liberal education, despite its enduring influence on both established and innovative curricula.” Carol noted that policy-makers did not use the term “liberal education” or exhibit any real understanding of what it was. She also pointed out that those in the academy avoided naming it, even with their students.

At the time, she issued a call for the breaking of that silence, describing the actions necessary:

“The first is summoning the vision, the will, and the long-term commitment to coalesce innovations already flowering around us into more intentional, connected, and cumulatively powerful frameworks for all students’ learning.

The second is the willingness to call these innovations what they are: a 21st-century vision for an inclusive liberal education.  She concluded: “The future of liberal education and the future of our core educational missions are one and the same.”

In the five years since the publication of Carol’s article, we have come a long way. As President of the Board of Regents, I am proud of the UW System’s status as pilot partner in AAC&U’s LEAP Campaign. I am proud of the wonderful work done by SAGLA, UW System Administration, and others at our institutions and throughout the state. I am proud that as a system of higher education, we have intentionally worked to break the “conspiracy of voluntary silence,” and are working to provide all Wisconsin citizens with a quality liberal education.

Thank you.