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Leadership in the Liberal Arts
Much of the public conversation about higher education in the 21st century has focused on the ability of graduates to get a job immediately upon graduation. Debates over funding for the liberal arts sometimes ignore the long-term success
of these graduates, and their ability to apply a variety of "soft skills" to their careers. One challenge for the humanities in the 21st century is to make their value known in these debates. One way is to examine how the liberal arts inform leadership.
An overlooked benefit of a liberal arts degree has historically been in the area of leadership. The qualities inherent in a liberally educated graduate, critical thinking, effective communication, and collaborative skills, among others, often serve them well in leadership positions. With this in mind, we spoke with three leaders at UND, all of whom earned bachelor's degrees in a liberal arts discipline, and asked them how the liberal arts prepared them, and can prepare others, to lead.
Overview of Leadership
Debbie Storrs, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, who holds a bachelor's in Sociology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and master's and doctoral degrees in Sociology from the University of Oregon, says with a smile that her journey to becoming a dean was accidental. She never planned on becoming a dean of a college. The skills she honed from the liberal arts and her willingness to embrace opportunities led to her selection as leader of the College of Arts & Sciences.
"Many liberal arts colleges need to prepare their students for [job] skills and affirm that students have these abilities to succeed and affirm confidence in their education," she said.
Storrs believes that a liberal arts degree prepares students for successful careers and gives them skills in communication, problem solving, and the ability to take multiple perspectives into account, which are necessary tools to become a good leader. "All liberal arts majors teach these skills; universities just need to more clearly demonstrate our effectiveness in developing leaders of the future," said Storrs.
Tami Carmichael received her bachelor's degree from Grove City (Pa.) College, where she graduated summa cum laude. She earned her master's and Ph.D. degrees in English from the University of Georgia in 1992 and 1998, respectively. She sees leadership as fundamental to her work with students in Integrated Studies. "Every aspect of being in any leadership position requires the skill set and experience that having a liberal arts background provides: critical thinking, experience with collaborative thinking and working, and creative problem solving."
In her office in Twamley Hall, Vice President for University & Public Affairs Susan Walton, who earned a bachelor's degree in independent studies, and a master's in English, both from Brigham Young University, says the most important quality in a leader is integrity. After seeing a former supervisor turn down the opportunity to look at proprietary information from a competitor, she found it encompassed what she thought a leader was. "I remember being very impressed with his reaction and it was from that moment on that I viewed him as a leader," said Walton.
Leadership and the Liberal Arts
Carmichael's students in ISP come from disparate backgrounds; woven into their experience is a common thread of hard work and determination. For these students, the diversity of perspectives differentiates them, and informs one another's educational experience. As Carmichael says in her direct, yet friendly way, "...being educated in the liberal arts provides you with broad knowledge of the world around you and it gives you a sense of your place in history. As Goethe said, 'The person who does not know 3,000 years of history is living hand to mouth.'"
Storrs explained that there are different types of leadership models. With her background in sociology, she has a deep value in the collaborative model of leadership in which stakeholders identify mutual goals, value relationships, share power and express the many voices that she represents in the College of Arts & Sciences. She emphasized the importance of equality, humility, and humbleness as a leader, saying, "To be humble, you have to be open to criticism and accept that you don't know everything."
Storrs also stressed the difference between leadership and management. Leadership is about vision and innovation, while management is about implementation and coordination. Both are important, but a manager has to focus on the necessary tasks, paper work, and the bottom line, where a leader focuses on people, ideas, and the future.
Students majoring in liberal arts disciplines are not alone in developing skill sets to find creative solutions, but the liberal arts are about "thinking outside the box," working collaboratively, and questioning legacy practices and policies.
Who should lead?
Storrs would absolutely encourage liberal arts students to consider leadership. "You don't need to take a leadership class to be a leader nor should you look at titles and mistake leadership with a title. Be open to opportunities to lead and above all, keep the best interest of others in mind, not just ourselves. Students who embrace leadership opportunities will learn much about themselves and others at the same time they make a difference in the world."
According to Carmichael, all students should find ways to gain leadership experience, "but I would caution them not to choose leadership roles for the sake of resume building. I would strongly urge them to seek to pursue their passions and to let those interests bring them to places where they can serve in leadership roles."
This mirrors Walton's advice to consider the people you are leading and the importance of pursuing leadershifor the right reasons. In one instance her husband had to be away at a business meeting on her birthday, which she saw as "the cost of doing business." But on that day she was surprised to receive a bouquet of flowers from her husband's boss. "There is a saying," says Walton, "If you don't get the
people stuff right, the other stuff won't matter. Leaders don't just care about the job or the work, they really care about the people."
"I would encourage people to know their strengths," says Carmichael, "and not to buy into the cultural stereotypes of what a leader should be. People have different strengths and there are different kinds of leadership roles." Concluding thoughts Students in the liberal arts develop a broad range of skills that can be harnessed to lead in multiple settings. As leaders on campus, Vice President Walton, Dean Storrs,
and Professor Carmichael, cite skills they developed in their liberal arts background — critical thinking, experience with collaborative thinking and working, and creative problem solving — as essential in their day-to-day work.
"Finding your passion, pursuing it, and knowing your own strengths will lead you naturally to a place where you can serve effectively in leadership roles that enrich your own life and pursuits," Carmichael said.
By Melanie Herauf, Kayla Rosenkranz, and Brittany Weichel
Arts & Sciences Interns
Dean Debbie Storrs
Professor Tami Carmichael