John M. Isaacson, chairman of the executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, delivered the keynote address to the Board of Trustees on October 4. Isaacson’s passion for higher education and the liberal arts comes from both his career and education: he has led numerous presidential searches for colleges and universities, and is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School.
Lewiston, Maine was on a big river, so it was a boomtown in the 1890s, and then, by 1930 it was the first territory in the United States of America to be a Rust Belt. There were those great, big, red-brick cotton mills on the river, and when I was growing up they slowly emptied, one after the other.
Seeing that, you got used to the idea that economies and societies are linked, one to the other. My family had been there a long time, a hundred years or so. They were all entrepreneurs and lawyers. That was my father’s family. And that’s what they did.
Every one of them built a business, maybe two or three businesses. My mother was a Hungarian refugee, a survivor of concentration camps. So this was a peculiar place for her and we grew up with a peculiar notion of what was possible and not possible in public and civic life.
I went off to law school because my grandfather was a lawyer and he told me to. At the time I didn’t know enough to tell him no. I’ll get back to that theme a little later. I’d discovered in law school what many people discover in law school: I wasn’t a lawyer.
Lawyers have a certain kind of mindset and I deeply admire what they do, but it wasn’t me. I went to work in public service because I was fundamentally committed to it.
I started learning to do search by working in prisons. I was looking for wardens. You can’t find a good warden if you can’t answer the question “What is a good prison?” If you can answer that question, you can find a good warden.
And that’s where I started to learn that the Platonic idea of who you trust with authority counts and runs deep for me.
You inquire what is the fundamental moral purpose, what is the mission. You create the heroic ideal and then you find someone who can come close to that in both their aspiration, their capacity to find money matched to mission, and their capacity to deliver the goods.
So I’ve been doing this now 45 years. I’m not a student of higher ed. I’m not a scholar about it, though I greatly admire scholars. I’m a practitioner. I bang around, I run into people, I grub into what is now hundreds of institutions.
And eventually, if you have just moments of reflection, you’ll learn a few things. Not too much, but a few. So I thought I’d say a few words about what goes on in higher education, broadly speaking, universities and colleges of all stripes and varieties, and a few big, broad themes. And then I’ll pull it back in to CMC because, after all, this is one of the great places and how those themes affect you and how you play with those themes are important to the strategy for the future. So let me say a few words.
The Cost of Denial, the Value of Opportunity
Some of this is really obvious. The first theme is really obvious. It is that the cost of higher education and the price of higher education have escalated far more dramatically than the income of families. We all know that. Everybody here who pays tuition or charges tuition knows that.
So the last 30 years, if you take the kind of lowest-common- denominator number, which is the cost of a four-year public higher education degree, it’s tripled over a 30-year period. In that same period, family income hasn’t gone up very much, maybe 20 percent all total. It’s been largely stagnant. So you can see that vast disparity creates all kinds of social tension.
Now, this is a great college. It teaches microeconomics. The fundamental notion is you raise price, the market goes down, right? People stop buying it. It’s not true in higher education, at least in the last 30 years. People didn’t stop buying it.
What happened was that every 10 years the proportion of the American population that earns a degree goes up two or three percentage points. Very slow, but it does rise. Today, roughly a third of the American population has an associate or a bachelor’s degree. The important statistic is that somewhere around 70 percent of all high school graduates go to college. Now, they don’t all graduate, right? They don’t graduate. An enormous proportion of them don’t graduate.
Graduation rates vary by type. Here at CMC I should know this number, but I think it’s around 90 percent, am I right?—I got that one more or less right. Flagship public universities—Michigan, the UCs—those places graduate students in the high 80s: 85, 87 percent. The California State University system graduation rates are between 15 and 50 percent, averaging in the 30s.
So an enormous percentage of the people who go to college and spend money on tuition don’t graduate. City University of New York, exactly the same thing: there are 250,000 students in the City University of New York, graduation rates of about a third. If you go to the great metropolitan/urban universities, that’s true.
Now, one more core fact about who we’re trying to educate in America. Today among 5-year-olds, that is first-graders, there is a slight majority of children of color. White people are no longer a majority among 5-year-olds. We are educating a highly diverse population, many of whom are both the children of immigrants and will be first generation college students. And you can see that vast demographic change moving in America. And it is what universities and colleges are going to be all about in the next 25 years as those kids become young adults going to college. It is incumbent on the country in a knowledge-intensive world that the population of the United States is far more educated than it is today or we will not be fair to these children or adaptive to the future.
It is possible that young people will adapt to the future and even that they will make the future, but they will not do it if they’re not educated. The differential in pay is very real and even more important. If you look at participation in the workforce, people without a high school diploma, 56 percent of all of those people between age 25 and 55 are in the workforce. If you look at the same group with a college degree, 86 percent of them are in the workforce. And that is the fundamental difference between poverty and prosperity. It is whether or not you actually earn a living. And you have to be educated to do it. So that’s the fundamental story about America.
Now, let’s spend a minute on what we might possibly do. The first problem is cost; what are we gonna do about that?
There is a critique running around that it’s all administrative bloat. You’ll find me a major skeptic on that topic. There is administrative bloat in any bureaucracy of any kind and a very well-run place will every year re-purpose some part of their base budget out of things they don’t need to things they do need.
However, that’s not an answer to a three-time increase in tuition. The big increases are we pay faculty a living wage. We never did that before. They are knowledge-intensive workers and we pay them as if they were in a competitive economy. And that’s not true. We pay them less than if they were in a competitive economy but we pay them creditably.
Second, having paid them, unlike the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, we actually insist that they work. So we’ve required them to do research and we check in on that topic. They can’t get tenure if they can’t really produce new knowledge, claim to be genuinely expert in their arena and, therefore, they teach 50 percent less than they used to, but they do the work of the great academy. I’ll get later to why that’s fundamentally important.
In universities, big science adds greatly to the cost. It costs a million dollars for an assistant professor in biological or material science. It costs ten million for a senior professor. Not their salary, just to launch them in their labs. And finally, when you’re in health care, as many universities are, that drives all of the administrative cost structure. Now, what is imaginable that we might do about all of this? I’m just going to say a few words about that, just a sort of way of framing it a little bit and then I promise you I will get to CMC.
So what is imaginable? First, you may have noticed this: if you look at the Bay Area—which was the first area where this happened— Berkeley and Stanford didn’t adapt to an economy, they invented the thing. We are looking at one of the hottest economies on earth and it is unimaginable without those two universities.
If you go to Boston and land yourself in Kendall Square, you will find that real estate prices in Kendall Square are almost exactly that of the middle of Manhattan. I think it’s about 80 bucks a square foot these days for commercial space. It’s not a very big area, not as big as the Claremont Colleges combined here. But it is densely connected with every pharma and biotech company on earth. And the reason is pretty simple: the Massachusetts General Hospital is on one end of the bridge and has a billion dollars in biological science research, and the MIT campus is on the other end of the bridge and has another billion in sponsored research. And that critical mass of intellectual labor invented the global economy of biotech and pharma—well, the current economy of biotech and pharma. If you do that work, you have to be there.
Why is that important? Well, I’ll give you one more illustration. Cornell has wonderful science and STEM work—there’s no economy in Ithaca, New York. It only works when these great institutions are in urban settings where the work of the city combines with the work of the university and invents the future.
All right, once more, why is that important? Well, if an academic enterprise—including this one—invents an economy, money flows toward it.
There are a million ways money flows toward it. Philanthropy is the most important. Industrial connection is another. Education, if you are inventing the future and your faculty are actually paid some reasonable salary and are doing the research and are inventing the future, then they are compelling. People want to be there. They want to be educated by them, they want to support them.
When colleges like Claremont McKenna fuel the rise of important economies, there are a million ways to find the resources that ameliorate the very high cost structure of these crucial institutions. Some of them are educational in courses for undergraduates, some for masters students, some for executive education. Some of them are philanthropy, which is very important. Some of them are in research. There are all kinds of avenues. And the very finest universities in this country, the insurgent universities—USC being one of them—have discovered that fever. They have put the entrepreneurial culture deep into the university and they find ways not simply to invent the economy, but to live within it and to prosper within it. Eventually that solves problems.
Financial Aid, Computer Science, and the Liberal Arts in an Era of Anxiety
You are solving the problem of how to create access at CMC by building financial aid from grateful donors and from people who deeply value what you do for the future of our society. You have very nearly solved that problem by now and you will in the next few years. That’s a stunning accomplishment. Every other institution needs to figure out how to do that and the most vigorous are on that path.
Let me now turn for a moment to think a little about CMC. So it’s expensive, costs a lot of money to come here. The kids are anxious beyond words. They’re scared to death after 2008. Their parents are even more scared than the kids. They’re spending all this money and they wonder what’s going to happen at the other end.
The world has shifted toward computer science and STEM disciplines and great liberal arts institutions—Harvard, Yale, Duke—missed the boat completely for damn near a hundred years. And you can see CMC trying to catch up. We are a far more diverse student body than we were and we will become even more diverse into the future. So it’s a different place and, in some ways, a deeply anxious place—not unlike every other college and university in the country. It’s not a surprise that there’s so much agitation in the world around universities. We embody the troubles of our culture and we are an anxious place.
So I’m going to ask a classical question: what is a liberal arts education in this context of anxiety and terrific prosperity, in a place with the capacity to invent the future?
We are startlingly traditional in our understanding of the liberal arts. The ancients—and I really mean the ancients, Greeks that is to say—had rather defined notions of what was an education and curriculum.
In the early Middle Ages, Christian scholars, eager to maintain the tradition of antiquity, brought some of that into the consciousness of the post-Roman fall. It didn’t catch until the 11th and 12th century when Europe becomes both more empirical and rational and we find the foundations of universities that adopt these very ancient curricula and adapt them.
Now, there are reasons why that happens in that time. We’re starting to see the consolidation of states into geographic entities that will endure, both in England and in France. Not true in Italy, not true in Spain for 200 more years, not true in Germany until the 19th century. But in England and France where you get the University of Paris and you get Oxford and Cambridge, we get the beginnings of consolidated states and a distinction between the monarch and the state.
Future-Proof: Critical Thinking and Breadth of Knowledge
So what does that mean? It’s very simple: you don’t run those kinds of things without people who are well-trained. For the first time in quite a long time, the monarch, the sovereign, required people intellectually trained to raise money and deploy armies and to do so effectively. And so they began to develop a class of people who are, in their terms, contemporaneous with what you are going to do. And the discipline in those curricula were disciplines that would fall neatly into the category of critical thinking on the one hand and intellectual breadth on the other.
We have not given up on either of those ideas. The trivium is grammar, logic, and rhetoric; that is to say how do you accurately use classical Latin, how will you use the logic developed by the ancient Greeks, and how would you make an argument, a dialectical argument in rhetoric. And the quadrivium was arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy; there are reasons for all four of those, but we’ll ignore that completely.
So what do we say today when we’re thinking about the liberal arts? We use two themes, both rooted in 19th century language about these same things. We haven’t changed our views very much in a thousand years. The two themes are, at least in the words I’ll use for them, simple ideas.
The first is the cultivation of and discipline of the mind. Today we would say we encourage critical thinking and we teach quantitative reasoning and the capacity to make an argument, both written and oral, that is persuasive. And that is what the 19th century called cultivating the mind or disciplining the mind. And it is a perfectly valid purpose.
You know, adolescents are goofy. What do they know? But these are not minds that produce accurate results and so the notion that teachers might somehow create a logical frame, develop a disciplined, rigorous view of a complex topic, that’s a useful thing.
And we spent the afternoon listening to faculty who complained that these poor students don’t do anything rigorous anymore. Well, the ideal of rigorous work remains a dominant part of the liberal arts. I don’t fight with the idea. The second idea is similar. It is the breadth of knowledge. In the 19th century they called it furnishing a mind—as if a mind were something quite separate from everything else. But they gave it a definition. The definition was the disciplines that German universities came up with at the end of the century to categorize knowledge.
And today this is general education in our terms or distribution requirements or the desire for breadth of knowledge. We don’t have the same certainty that the late 19th and early 20th century had about furnishing the mind. We no longer quite agree on what all these disciplines are; and so much of it is interdisciplinary. We are moving toward problems rather than disciplines in the best of academic work.
And besides, if you put a faculty together and you ask them to come up with a curriculum, they can’t do it. So, we have given up a little bit on that and our best move along those lines is we are trying to get students to be the agents of their own discovery. This is not a bad idea.
Here at CMC, what we most want in liberal arts is to flip the switch so that a kid becomes convinced that he or she is capable of inventing a valid idea that no one else has had—in a territory of some meaning and to be forceful in its defense.
That agency, and that desire to own your learning is a valid goal. In some ways we fell into it because we can no longer defend the full breadth of the mind, so we’ve found another way to express it. But I think it is useful.
Now, this gets me to my last statement which is that both of those ideas—cultivating the mind, meaning critical thinking, and furnishing the mind, breadth—are valid and continue to be current in the modern definition as it was a thousand years ago.
What We Do: Engaging the World
We have added a couple of things in American universities in the last two decades. It is very widely done but not incorporated in how we talk. So what we do is different from how we talk.
So here’s what we do: We’ve added experiential education. Now this is internships, summer programs, study abroad, CMC in D.C., CMC in Silicon Valley. It’s research with faculty. It’s a full array.
It’s a menu of opportunity to engage in the world and to link it to your academic work. And we describe it as a menu of opportunity. We don’t say that it’s fundamental to our definition of the liberal arts. But it is so pervasive that it is impossible to ignore as fundamental to the liberal arts. Linked to it is career services.
You are not a self-respecting college these days without a highly-developed career services office and no kid in his right mind — and certainly no parent – would send a kid to a place that didn’t have a good career services office. So that actually is integral to a definition of the liberal arts.
The Journey of Discovery
So how would we give meaning to what we actually do? How would we say what we are about? How would we describe the liberal arts education in terms that reflect what we do, not just what we say? We would certainly retain the ancient and honorable parts of it. There is no argument with that, and nobody does argue with it. But I think we might do well by describing what we do for young people as providing them with a journey of discovery; that is, they’re here, they’re not just minds.
The post-Freudian world has revealed to us that a mind is not a pure, cerebral thing. It is not independent of feeling. It is not something that passion and emotion do not inform. People do not choose fields of vocations all by themselves just because they are exposed to a fabulous idea. They’re attached to the idea. They emote to the idea. They have passions about the idea. They discover the self. These are secular revelations.
The honest truth is that young people haven’t a clue. They don’t know what the world offers and they don’t know who they are. So we bring them here and we introduce them to a journey of discovery, to the possibility of understanding what it is that is somewhat beyond what their parents did for a living or what their best friend intends to do. They don’t have to know what they’re going to do and they don’t have to pick one narrow course, as Hiram tells me, when they leave.
Discernment, Vocation, and Leadership
But there is what the Jesuits call a discernment. A discernment is feeling your way intellectually and emotionally to a vocation. A vocation is not a job. A vocation is meaning in work. It is a way of investing the best of who you are as a person, as a feeling, sensate person in the world engaged with the life of the world and doing the work that has ethical meaning to you and to the others around you.
I don’t know anyone who quite articulates it this way and my suspicion is that anybody who did would probably get fired. However, it’s an imaginable discussion. And if ever there were a place capable of that discussion, it is this one.
You’re way out ahead of the curve, both in the doing of a modern liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy, and in the argument about it. You’re gifted with your mission. People who founded the place were not frightened of commerce or of pragmatism or of the real world. They put their students in it and they expected them to lead in it.
You cannot lead what you do not understand. You cannot lead if you cannot follow.
So, it is possible for people to engage with themselves and with the world around them, and to take a voyage of discovery that makes them better prepared to do the CMC mission when they leave.