Sunday, April 20, 2014
During my first year as president of the University of Southern Maine, Charlie Lyons, president of York County Community College, invited me to make a presentation at a monthly meeting he hosts for the region’s business and community leaders.
At the conclusion, a member of the audience approached me, cited the number of anthropology degrees awarded by the University of Maine System, and asked what those graduates would do with their degrees.
My own daughter was an anthropology major in college, so I pointed out that she had moved swiftly into a career in retail management. Another member of the audience chimed in to note that she also had an anthropology degree and that she was now vice president of a local bank.
In fact, most liberal arts graduates at USM and other universities, both public and private, enter careers quite afield from their studies.
In one of USM’s new television commercials, Kate Chappell, a co-founder of Tom’s of Maine, talks about the value of her USM degree in communications, not only to her business but also to her passion for art.
If you go into any one of Portland’s law firms, you will find that most of the attorneys working there earned traditional liberal arts degrees before attending law school.
Ask business leaders across the state about their undergraduate degrees, and you will find as many with English, history or political science degrees as you find those who majored in business.
Questions about the relevancy of liberal arts degrees are understandable as our nation grapples with how best to advance economic growth and prepare our college graduates with the skills they need to compete and succeed in an increasingly global marketplace.
A big part of the appeal of professional education – in business, social work, teacher education and the health professions – lies in the close relationship of the degree programs to specific careers.
However, one of USM’s most energetic alumni supporters, Kevin McCarthy, president and CEO of Unum, has expressed a strong preference for liberal arts backgrounds in the employees he hires. Why? He respects their intellectual breadth and believes that they have superior communication, collaborative and creative skills that make them effective and flexible employees.
After graduation, poets become doctors, like William Carlos Williams. Geography majors become professional basketball players – anyone know of Michael Jordan? English majors become astronauts, like Sally Ride.
Closer to home, former state Sen. Richard A. Bennett earned an honors degree from Harvard before coming to USM for his MBA.
Portland resident, journalist and science writer Hannah Holmes earned her USM bachelor of arts in English.
World-renowned jazz musician and painter John Bruce Walker earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy here at USM.
As you can see, there are many career paths leading from a liberal arts degree. While universities are reasonably expected to serve as economic drivers of their communities, they would be immeasurably reduced if all they provided were high-quality professional and technical education.
As USM prepares to mount a new program in tourism and hospitality management in response to industry demand here in Maine, it will draw on courses in business, economics, art, philosophy, geography, environmental studies, history and – yes – anthropology to prepare graduates “to think creatively, develop innovative products and services for the industry, and understand the immediate and long-range sustainable issues of the field.”
USM’s liberal arts faculty connect their fields of study with real-world issues in practice as well as theory.
Libby Bischof, an assistant professor of history, applies her expertise in Maine history to her work with local K-12 history and social science teachers.
Art professor Jan Piribeck worked with students to create last year’s public art installation, “inundation,” an artwork on display along Portland’s Marginal Way and the Bayside trail to illustrate the effects of global warming on tide levels.
USM celebrates the liberal arts, and our students, alumni and community supporters testify that these degrees are great preparation for a lifetime of personal and professional success.
Selma Botman is the president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at: