The Value of Liberal Arts, Jen Riley, Former CAS Dean

“I Believe in the Value of the Liberal Arts” | Jeanette Riley, Former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, 2016

I am often asked the question, “what can you do with a degree in the liberal arts”? The simple answer is “anything!” But in a time when the liberal arts are under attack in the press and by politicians, the simple answer needs often isn’t enough. So, here’s a fuller answer. With a liberal arts education, you can pursue jobs across the spectrum of our economy – in businesses as sales, marketing, communications and human resources people; in non-profit organizations; in the publishing and media world; in public administrating; in technology firms; starting your own business; and, even more. Liberal arts graduates bring core skills to the work place – critical thinking; problem solving; teamwork; communication skills; creativity; flexibility. Graduates with a foundation in the liberal arts are self-motived and articulate individuals who bring a range of perspectives to the workplace, which fosters creativity and original thinking. At the same time, studying the liberal arts opens people’s minds and helps them think outside of their own experiences, which create tolerance for diversity and guides ethical decision making.

As a result of these skills that a liberal arts education develops, is it surprising that many top CEOs are liberal arts graduates? Here’s just a short list: Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks, BS Communications; Robert Iger, CEO Walt Disney, BA Communications; Richard Plepler, CEO HBO, BA Government; Carly Fiorino, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, BA Medieval History and Philosophy; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO, BA History and Literature; Patrick Byrne, CEO Overstock.com, BA Philosophy and Asian Studies; Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs, BA History; Denise Morrison, CEO Campbell Soup, BS Economics and Psychology. And there are many more examples.

From this list, one can see that a liberal arts degree leads to career success. As a product of the liberal arts myself, I have experienced that success as an English professor and as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, a position I never expected to hold. The skills I learned from my liberal arts background enable me to lead the largest college on campus as I am able to synthesize ideas, problem solve, manage a large budget, collaborate with a variety of people across many different areas, create new initiatives to enhance our students’ educational experience, and more. Despite the headlines suggesting liberal arts graduates end up as baristas in coffee shops, from my own experience and the successes I see in the business world, I continue to believe the liberal arts effectively prepares you for the future.

Not surprisingly, a Hart Research Associates 2013 survey shows that 74% ofCEOs recommend a 21st-century liberal education as they believe it will create a more dynamic worker (AAUP). 93% of employers say that an employee’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve problems is more important than their undergraduate major. 80% of employers say that every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. 3 out of 4 employers recommend a liberal arts and sciences education as the best way for success in today’s global economy.

This is why at UMass Dartmouth, we engage all our students in the University Studies curriculum, which provides a liberal arts foundation. This is not to say that you shouldn’t major in business, nursing, or engineering. We need all these professions, along with liberal arts graduates. If you are in one of our professional colleges, I encourage you to consider a minor in the liberal arts. I know nursing students who have benefited from minoring in Women’s & Gender Studies as they’ve learned more about issues women face in the workplace (yes, sexism still exists), as well as women’s health issues and politics impacting health policy from the perspectives of social scientists. I know business majors who have honed their writing skills by completing the minor in communications, and business leaders will tell you that writing is the core skill they seek in new hires. I know engineers who have fostered their creativity and ability to listen and empathize with people by engaging in a literature minor. As Steve Jobs, creator of Apple once said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

These are just a few examples, but it shows what I believe – the liberal arts are valuable to all of us for they bring us new perspectives, foster creativity, and add to how we view and interact with the world and each other.