At the recent Virginia Education Summit, speaking in front of an audience of legislators and seated among leading university presidents, I went in bold, with this statement: An undergraduate degree grounded in the liberal arts and sciences is the best preparation for the workforce of tomorrow. Bar none. As an entrepreneur and a technophile, as well as a humanist and educator, I stand behind this declaration.
We aspire to prepare students to be engaged citizens, successful professionals and whole human beings. These are highly compatible aspirations.
College graduates must have the essential capacities to be agile, multidimensional and adaptable critical thinkers, prepared for the rapid pace of change we know lies ahead — and for what we cannot yet know. The speed of technological transformation is indisputable. And that speed places a premium on intellectual agility, multidimensionality and the ability to navigate change ethically and in a data-informed and values-driven way.
Together with baseline quantitative skills, the future workforce will need breadth and wisdom. A McKinsey Global Institute study on the U.S. workforce, “Competing in a Data Driven World,” makes this point. The most critical issue on the horizon for every industry is how to best leverage its new data capacities.
How will companies tackle fundamental business challenges in a data-informed way using the next generation of artificial intelligence? And how will they navigate the emerging ethical and human challenges of using that data? The McKinsey study identifies that we will need roughly 250,000 data scientists in the United States in the coming years. We know we will need even more computer scientists skilled in AI.
What is more challenging — and less well recognized — is that McKinsey predicts we will need as many as 4 million “business translators.”
These business translators can analyze rapidly evolving kinds of data and craft solutions aligned with organizational values and missions. In a piece for the Mellon Foundation, James Shulman nailed it: “These translators need to be like people who live on the borders of two countries and, by necessity, speak the language of both in order to go about their daily business.”
These translators are our liberal arts and sciences graduates.
Let me share one example of how students, faculty and staff are using this kind of thinking at my university. William & Mary is home to AidData, the global leader in providing reliable information about foreign aid. But AidData didn’t start out as a powerhouse. It began in 2003 as an undergraduate honors thesis, when a W&M student set out to create a database of global aid, which didn’t exist at that point.
Today, the initiative tracks nearly $5.5 trillion in development finance and is recognized as one of the world’s best resources for policymakers, financiers and industry to make data-informed geopolitical decisions. AidData is a thriving, interdisciplinary research lab that has brought more than 40 million research dollars to the university.
The questions that guided the W&M undergraduate were born not of statistics alone, nor of computational modeling alone — although both tool kits are necessary to answer them. These questions were rooted in the breadth of an arts and sciences path that encourages research and inquiry into subjects such as international relations, history, modern languages, geography, African studies and more.
The ability to synthesize diverse kinds of evidence in dynamic and ambiguous environments — and communicate fluently to different audiences about what that evidence means and why it matters — is what distinguishes a business translator from a technician or coder.
AidData is just one example of why universities with an emphasis on a rigorous arts and sciences core that engages with emerging fields such as data analytics can have enormous impact in preparing citizens and professionals for a rapidly changing world.
Just three months into my role as William & Mary’s 28th president, I am quickly learning the commitment to excellence in higher education in Virginia. Based on the response my remarks received from elected leaders and colleagues at the summit, I am encouraged about its future.
We owe students an education for the whole person and for the whole of their careers. Data- and tech-savvy, grounded in the breadth of arts and sciences, and with the wisdom to find value both in continuity and in change: These are the problem solvers that every industry and community will value most highly in the coming years.
Katherine A. Rowe is the president of the College of William & Mary.