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The Liberal Arts Imperative

January 4, 2016

To the Dartmouth community:

As winter settles in and our community gathers for a new term, I am reminded that change is part of what defines us: students go abroad and return, they graduate, received wisdom is challenged, and new knowledge is created. These cycles are what renew and recharge our campus. Yet for generations of Dartmouth students and alumni there has been a constant, unshakable bedrock supporting everything we venture—the promise of the liberal arts.

In contemporary culture, the value of a liberal arts education is sometimes questioned. It has been characterized as a relic, a thing of the past that doesn’t prepare students for a turbulent, tech-saturated world where narrowly defined, specific skills are viewed as more valuable and relevant.

I could not disagree more.

In today’s landscape of technological and social transformation, graduates must be prepared to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. What curriculum is bettersuited to develop such abilities than one that offers a broad understanding of the world with mastery of at least one field, the capacity to think critically and creatively, powerful communication skills, an ease at working in teams, scientific literacy, the ability to engage the arts and humanities, and the development of principled leadership skills? In fact, the liberal arts have never been morerelevant. As Dartmouth has shown time and again, the liberal arts education is an incubator for leadership and impact on the world.

Recently, Gail and I visited one of the world’s most innovative and successful companies, where a number of Dartmouth alumni hold leadership positions. This company did not exist 25 years ago and, indeed, its products and services were unimaginable when I was a student.

The highlight of our visit was a pitch competition for visiting Dartmouth students. Each student team was asked to develop and pitch a new product for the company—one emerging not from their imaginations but informed by critical analysis of consumer trends. The teams were diverse by gender, race, nationality, and Dartmouth affiliation, and they included undergraduates and Tuck students.

Gail and I were inspired by their creativity and teamwork, their use of data, and the insight the teams brought to bear in analyzing millennial consumer interests in a condensed time frame. We were impressed but not surprised, as this represents the commitment to quality that we’ve come to expect from our students.

I pass along this experience because it makes the case, emphatically, for the value of the active, dynamic brand of liberal arts education at which Dartmouth excels.

Over the course of a lifetime, our graduates can expect to pursue several different careers. And many of the jobs today’s students will hold just a few years from now do not yet exist. Amid constant change, employers increasingly value the ability to innovate and imagine new directions. According to a 2013 survey, a vast majority of employers said they put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills to overcome uncertainty. They are asking employees to use a broader set of skills than in the past, and they tell us that a candidate’s capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major. Enter the liberal arts graduate.

In the pitch competition, our student teams called upon these skills in developing their presentations, analyzing opportunities, engaging stakeholders, and offering well-thought-out strategies. But what stood out as most meaningful was that the teams had to understand the diversity of cultures that make up not only the United States, but the world’s potential consumers. Working together, they had to synthesize their own perspectives to develop ideas that would be compelling to a broad range of people. They had to exercise cultural awareness and humility. As Dartmouth educates global citizens, and serves as a laboratory for intellectual innovation, increased diversity—and our commitment in pursuit of that goal articulated by Provost Carolyn Dever in her New Year’s message—will prove an essential part of a liberal arts education.

Regardless of the career path they choose, Dartmouth graduates will use the timeless skills afforded them by their liberal arts education to have an impact on the world around them. These aren’t simply the capacities employers will seek; they are needed to be true citizen-leaders. They are the capacities humankind will need to advance progress. This is the promise of a Dartmouth education.

Our alumni shape the world in ways big and small. A belief in the potential of a liberal arts graduate to change the world has remained Dartmouth’s unshakeable foundation throughout the seasons and the centuries. This is but one of a handful of defining aspects that make a Dartmouth education unique, and I will address others as the year progresses.

For now, Gail and I say welcome back to a new year and a new term at Dartmouth. We hope you will embrace it with everything you’ve got, and we wish you the very best as we apply the promise of the liberal arts to our lives and to our learning. 

Sincerely,

Phil Hanlon ’77
President

Last Updated: 1/4/16