Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good morning. Welcome to the University of Kansas. It’s my pleasure to join you here this morning as you begin the first full day of your annual meeting.
It’s fitting that we’re gathered in The Commons, which is a space dedicated to bringing people together – people from different disciplines, different backgrounds and different communities – all with the goal of learning from each other and breaking down the artificial boundaries that keep us apart.
The university is honored to host this gathering, mainly because it is addressing key issues facing humanities centers and institutes, but also because it gives me an opportunity to brag a little bit about our own center.
We have the good fortune of not only having an outstanding team at the Hall Center for the Humanities, led by Victor Bailey. But we also have the ongoing support of a family philanthropy that recognizes the importance of the humanities to the public good.
Just this week the Hall Family Foundation added to the foundation’s generosity through a $2.7 million gift. In recognition of both the need for interdisciplinary work and the increasingly digital nature of our world, the gift will among other things support a distinguished professorship in the collaborative humanities and a postdoctoral fellowship in the digital humanities.
This gift expands the Hall Center’s ability to stimulate and support research in the humanities, arts and social sciences, especially through interdisciplinary work that brings scholars and communities together. All of this contributes to the overall mission of the University of Kansas, which is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world.
Now, this is a challenging time for universities, especially public universities. And it’s clear from the agenda that you’re going to be tackling these challenges head on. Most of these revolve around the question of the mission of universities. What role do we play in the life of the states, nations and societies we serve?
The notion of the public good seems to be waning, which I believe is a very dangerous trend – and not simply for its effect on universities, but rather for its effect on society at large. For example, we know the personal, economic benefit when a student earns a degree. We can quantify it. But there’s a societal benefit that goes far beyond unrealized earnings. Democracies must have educated, enlightened and engaged citizens if they are to survive. We educate those citizens.
We could go down the list, as there are few problems facing our world that universities can’t help solve. Yet the public good seems to be taking a backseat. And in many ways the humanities, along with the arts, are bearing the brunt of this shift.
Like art or music, the work created by our scholars can be appreciated for its own sake. No one would expect a composer to run a cost-benefit analysis on a musical composition or exhort a conductor to be more efficient by finishing a 30 minute piece in 20 minutes. Nor do we expect an artist to calculate the return on investment on a painting. We could say the same for a poem, or book, or any of the range of creative works that you’re privileged to be a part of every day.
These works can be enjoyed for their own sake, for the experience the creator intends to share. And the works of scholarship produced can be valued because they expand the scope of human knowledge and deliver an answer or perspective on the human condition.
But in an era when parents and policymakers are increasingly focused on quantifying the extrinsic return on every investment, it is in our best interest to do a better job of demonstrating the value that these works provide to our society.
We’ve seen this happen with STEM fields. As Richard Brodhead, President of Duke, pointed out at the American Academy Induction in 2011, math and science are now both closely tied with national competitiveness and security. We must do the same, and tap what he called the “immense public appetite for the humanities” by engaging the innate curiosity of humans. By showing what benefit we receive from understanding the language and cultures, from having a perspective on the broad arc of history, from the intimate exploration of individual human experience that only a novel can bring.
In this we have powerful, if unexpected allies.
Survey after survey of business leaders shows that the traits they value in employees are ones that can best be developed through an education that is infused with the humanities and liberal arts. Critical thinking. The ability to understand and conceptualize problems, including complex interpersonal interactions. The ability to then think creatively about how to solve those problems, and to effectively make the case for your solution. An understanding of not just the languages of other countries, but their history and values.
All of these are highly valued by CEOs – many of whom themselves hold liberal arts degrees. And all of these are fostered at our universities, and in your centers and institutes.
The challenge is getting the views of hiring managers to match the views of their CEOs. As Jeff Selingo from the Chronicle has frequently pointed out, hiring managers are much more likely to screen for candidates who possess job-specific skills, rather than the broad traits their CEOs value. And we see this reflected in the behavior of our students, who are more likely to seek a degree in a field they – or their parents – think will get them a job quickly, even if that degree doesn’t truly reflect their interests and passions.
We must be evangelists for the humanities. The choir gathered here has been won over. It’s time to take the show on the road. It’s time to take our message to the managers and policymakers who wonder what someone would ever do with a degree in that, and show them the answer is usually “anything.”
It’s time to take our message to legislators who question why they should support the study of anthropology even during a time when it is more important than ever that we understand the people we’re sharing the planet with.
And it’s time to take our message to the parents and students who think a degree in business, or engineering, or pharmacy is the only way to success. Those are all outstanding options. But they aren’t the only options. We owe it to students to make it clear that there are a range of paths to success. And we need to make it clear before they get halfway through a program only to decide it really isn’t for them.
The challenges seem daunting. But the stakes are too high not to try.
And knowing of the knowledge, creativity, and skill of the advocates we have on our side, and here in this room, I like our odds.
Thank you for all for joining us at the University of Kansas. Best wishes for a successful day, and I’ll see all of you this afternoon in Kansas City.