Career Success Depends on Liberal Arts

A recent survey of business and non-profit leaders conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) concludes that “broad learning” and “cross-cutting skills” are the most important kinds of preparation for long-term career success. When hiring new employees, these employers “overwhelmingly” look for skills in oral and written communication, teamwork, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. And more than 90 percent say that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than (a candidate’s) undergraduate major.”

These findings should not be surprising to anyone in the field of higher education—or to those familiar with hiring practices, even in the creative industries that FIT supports. Higher education wonks will have seen results like these often—indeed, these findings are consistent with similar surveys conducted over the past five years by the AAC&U. Neither are they surprising to us at FIT. The industry leaders who visit our campus every year form a virtual chorus calling for employees who are adept at critical thinking, who have strong communication skills, and who have the capacity to deal with the ethical business-related issues they will inevitably confront

However, these findings may surprise the public at large, which has been bombarded in recent years with attacks on the very academic disciplines in which these cross-cutting skills are most readily developed: the liberal arts. Its critics see liberal arts learning as an indulgence and a distraction for students who face an intensely competitive, technologically advanced job marketplace. But it is through the liberal arts that students learn the very things employers clearly want: to think critically, ask the right questions, analyze, and problem solve. It is through the liberal arts, too, that they gain exposure to the global cultures that are critical to the careers they will pursue. It is through the liberal arts that they will learn to communicate well.

That is why today, at this career-oriented college, liberal arts study is a strategic and integral part of the curriculum. It is a fundamental building block for all of our academic programs. I find it gratifying that liberal arts courses are so popular that we now offer 21 minors—ranging from Asian studies to economics to ethics and sustainability, a topic of urgent interest to the design and fashion industries our students enter.

There are many fascinating findings in this survey—most of which, on reflection, bode well for FIT. I expect to share my thoughts on some of the other findings in future posts.

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Fashion’s Economic Impact

I was delighted that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney chose FIT as the place to unveil a new report showing the economic impact—$887 million, in fact—of New York Fashion Week. She was here on February 6, a week before that glorious designer showcase—a perfect time to celebrate fashion in New York City. Fashion is, after all, a signature industry for our city, one that people the world over identify with New York.

Representative Caroline Maloney does a press conference at FIT

In her FIT press conference, Congresswoman Maloney emphasized the industry’s impact on the city’s economy: it employs more than 180,000 people, including 16,000 in manufacturing jobs, and generates almost $2 billion in tax revenue each year. More than 900 fashion companies have their headquarters here.

As a member of Mayor’s Fashion Working Group, I know how important it is, as well, to tout the industry’s strength, its primacy, its huge economic impact—not to mention glamour—and to help maintain the city as fashion’s global capital.

But I really have to point out: it all starts at FIT. Seventy years ago, a small group of visionary industry leaders opened the doors to a new institute to secure their industry’s future. Out of that bold move, we have, today, Michael Kors and Norma Kamali, Calvin Klein and Nanette Lepore…Ralph Rucci…Francisco Costa…and of course Karolina Zmarlak, who was honored at Congresswoman Maloney’s event. Karolina, a Polish American designer, is a proud 2007 alumna who has built a successful fashion brand in New York. She is among the tens of thousands of gifted alumni who populate every level of the design industry.

As the Congresswoman said, “Here in New York City, fashion is big business,” and she noted, “FIT faculty and students are some of the most creative, dedicated and talented people in the industry.”

I could not agree more and, as president of FIT, I was especially pleased to tell the audience about the college’s 81 percent job placement rate. The vast majority of alumni not only get positions in the fields in which they studied, but they work and stay here in New York City. Which only reinforces my point—it really does all start here.

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“Snow” Nice to be Back at Work

I do not envy Mayor De Blasio or Governor Cuomo today. One “failed” snow storm—and they are criticized, castigated, berated, and blamed for making what their fault-finders call a bad decision.

As we all know, the city was shut down late Monday and Tuesday—the roads closed and, in an unprecedented move, the subways shut down as well. FIT closed on Monday at 2:00 pm and remained closed all day and evening on Tuesday. As we all know, the monster blizzard turned out to be a much gentler weather event for the city, with gusty winds and about eight inches of snow. Long Island and New England were battered by the storm—and I suspect residents there were grateful that their elected leaders took all necessary precautions.

I am not responsible for millions of people as are the mayor and the governor. I am, however, responsible for the safety and security of 10,000 FIT students and 1,700 employees and I take that responsibility very seriously. Keeping the college open or closed under these circumstances will always have consequences, and the consequence I will always want to avoid is one affecting anyone’s safety.

I recognize that the mayor and governor walk a tight-rope when dealing with weather predictions and completely sympathize with their decision to…as they say…err on the side of caution. I believe that if the brunt of the storm had veered just a bit more to the west, the critics would today be hailing the mayor and governor as heroes. New York City was lucky. It’s as simple as that. Were we inconvenienced here at FIT? We were. Classes were cancelled, meetings postponed. Our valiant Buildings and Grounds crew was on duty throughout the storm—Monday and Tuesday—keeping the grounds safe; Aramark workers maintained food service for our students. Considering all, I think we have nothing to complain about and I am delighted to be back at my desk on this frigid but sunny day.

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Free Community Colleges

In 2012, in the heat of a presidential election campaign, President Obama made the apparent mistake of wishing out loud that all of our nation’s children could have the opportunity to go to college. That would seem like a fairly innocent, “American as apple pie” kind of wish, but not in this highly divided nation, and certainly not in the midst of a political year. He was attacked by his opponents as a “snob” and an “elitist”—and colleges, by the way, were also attacked as being a flagrant waste of money.

So here we are, three years later. President Obama—re-elected despite his elitism—has turned his wish into a concrete proposal to make community colleges tuition-free throughout the nation. The basic outline includes a $60 billion investment over the next 10 years to cover tuition for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA. While Washington would pay for the majority of the costs—75 percent—the states that participate would cover the rest. The president projects that the program, if enacted by Congress—a very big “if” of course—as many as nine million students would benefit.

Naturally, this proposal has been greeted with skepticism; many political observers simply say it is dead-in-the-water given the general polarization in Washington. But this is really a big idea—a visionary idea—one that may have enough strength to influence the national conversation about the role of higher education today in America, its role in our globalized economy and in any attempt to reach equity for so many of our nation’s underserved populations. As one economic analyst said, “…nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.”

A number of observers have pointed out that what the president really wants to do is make two years of college the norm for students today—the same way that four years of high school became the norm for American students at the start of the 20th century—a time when the country was rapidly evolving out of its agrarian roots. His wish—his vision—should come as no surprise. Throughout his presidency, he and Mrs. Obama have aggressively promoted higher education both through their thoughtful presentations and their on-the-ground programs. While the naysayers are already nit-picking details of the president’s plan (many of which have yet to be revealed), they are not—I am pleased to note—being vitriolic in the way that they were during the 2012 campaign. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity and even legitimate reason, once the plan is fully unveiled, to debate its details. But I hope that it is a serious debate—one that does justice to the power of this vision—a vision that reinforces the optimism of our sometimes elusive American dream.

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A Gift of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, circa 1980s; Photo by Morris Lane
Gordon Parks, circa 1980s; Photo by Morris Lane

Last month, I received a five-volume boxed set of the collected works of Gordon Parks. It came out of the blue—as a gift from the publisher, Gerhard Steidl, and Dr. Thomas Schwarz, the president of SUNY/Purchase, which is where the Gordon Parks Foundation is housed.

It is a magnificent collection—one that reflects the arc of an artistic career that almost defies description. Gordon Parks was a photographer, musician, author, poet, and filmmaker—a pioneering story-teller with an unerring eye, acute intellect, and empathetic heart. He was the first African-American photographer to work at Life and Vogue magazines; the first African-American to work for the Office of War Information during WWII and the Farm Security Administration; and in bringing his novel The Learning Tree to the screen, the first to write, direct, and produce a film for a major motion picture company. He was a Renaissance man.

At Life magazine, where he worked for 20 years, one might say he covered the waterfront: fashion, crime, entertainers, society, the civil rights movement, Benedictine monks, and Harlem gangs. Most notable, perhaps, were his heart-rending photo essays on the hidden worlds of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, as the senior curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art points out in these volumes. “His stories transported readers not only to other places and to the diversity of their fellow humanity, but to a better sense of themselves.”

Ten years ago, FIT recognized Gordon Parks with an honorary degree from SUNY at our 2004 commencement ceremony. Already 92 years old, he was still actively involved in his many pursuits—gracious, lively, and delightful. At a luncheon following the ceremony (held in the employee dining room in Dubinsky), we surprised him with a performance by his old friend, the renowned jazz artist Grady Tate, playing “Don’t Misunderstand”—with words and music by Gordon Parks himself. It was a real treat for everyone present.

These five volumes offer a survey of his entire 70 year career, including work from years long before and years long after his tenure at Life. Some are iconic and are among the most memorable visual symbols of moments in time, of individuals. They range from explorations of New York’s old Fulton fish market to South American hovels to landscapes and abstractions. In color or black and white, these photographs have universal reach. The volumes also contain enlightening essays from colleagues at Life, art historians and other scholars—as well as from Parks himself.

I am ever grateful to Dr. Schwarz and the publisher for this gift. The books will reside in the Gladys Marcus Library where I hope they will provide insight and pleasure to all who reach for them.

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