A Word From Kenneth Alexo Jr., Vice President for University Advancement 

BC_050113_campus_172It’s a joke I often hear when I tell people I work at Drew University. The standard version goes something like this: “An engineer looks at an idea and asks, ‘How does it work?’ An accountant looks at it and asks, ‘How much does it cost?’ And a liberal arts graduate looks at the same idea and asks, ‘You want fries with that?’”

My initial reaction to this hackneyed criticism of the liberal arts is to take pity on my interlocutors; they have obviously not had the advantage of the very education they feebly seek to denigrate. And then the teacher in me–or, what is essentially the same thing, the fundraiser–takes over. This is one of those perfect teaching moments, I tell myself, and I embrace the opportunity to show these tired, oh-so-astute critics of the liberal arts the error of their ways.

The evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, convincingly demonstrates that a liberal arts education prepares graduates for personal and professional success much better than pre-professional or vocational programs. Indeed, the data show, among other things, that alumni of liberal arts colleges and universities possess the very skills and capacities employers insist they’re looking for; that they earn more during their lifetimes; that they’re more likely to be promoted; that they can more effectively and easily master the skills of new technologies and industries; that they’re more likely to vote and be involved in their communities as citizens; and that they are, generally speaking, happier with their lives than their counterparts who did not receive a liberal arts education. (I suspect they also tell infinitely more clever jokes.)

To illustrate the point, I share with my befuddled detractors of the liberal arts that Drew has far more than its proportional share of CEOs of major corporations, research scientists, investment bankers, political and non-profit leaders, entrepreneurs, media and entertainment executives, and hedge fund managers. So much for the idea, I say, that a liberal arts education provides little in the way of practical knowledge or the skills that matter in the “real world.”

For most of the 12 years that I have had pleasure and privilege of working at Drew, I have assumed that I am just one soldier in a vast army engaged in a battle for the liberal arts–a just war, if ever there were one. In recent years, however, I have begun to question this assumption. As the attacks on the liberal arts have grown stronger and more widespread, the number of people willing to defend the “education befitting a free person” seems to be shrinking. Perhaps we have, as a society, become increasingly satisfied with college graduates who cannot write well, think critically, interpret texts, evaluate empirical claims, solve problems or tackle ethical dilemmas?

Or perhaps it’s just the Drew University regiment that has decided a liberal arts education is not worth defending. I say this because, less than 10 years ago, nearly one-half of College of Liberal Arts alumni were giving back to their alma mater, which put Drew well ahead of other private liberal arts colleges and universities such as Bucknell, Connecticut College, Skidmore, and Franklin and Marshall. Today, that number has dropped to less than one-quarter–and we trail the average alumni giving rate for our peer group of colleges by a good seven or eight percentage points.

I understand that there are many reasons for this precipitous decline in Drew’s alumni participation rate: a persistently unstable economy, mounting student debt, competition from other worthy non-profits, concerns about the rising costs of a Drew education. Nationally, alumni giving has hit an historic low, which does not bode well for the future of American higher education and its long-standing reliance on “paying it forward”–on alumni subsidizing the education of those who succeed them at their alma mater, just as their own education was subsidized by those whom they succeeded.

It nonetheless surprises me–and my colleagues in Alumni House and across campus–that so many Drew alumni have, in recent years, chosen not to give back. The negative impact of choosing not to support Drew is considerable: it suggests dissatisfaction with the liberal arts education you received, and a disinterest in making that education available to the deserving students following in your footsteps. It also entails fewer and smaller grants awarded to Drew by corporations and foundations, which refuse to support schools not supported by their own alumni. And it also brings Drew down in the rankings, as the percentage of alumni making a gift (size doesn’t matter) is used to gauge a university’s reputation.

Choosing to make a gift to Drew, on the other hand, tells a very different story. When alumni support their alma mater, it implies that their Drew experience still means something to them, that they care about the present and future value of their diploma, that they recognize the debt they owe to the generations of alumni before them who supported their education, that they are grateful for Bob Smith, Joy Phillips, Doug Simon, Kesha Moore, Bob Fenstermacher, Carlos Yordan, Gerry Smith-Wright, Perry Leavell and the countless other Drew faculty who helped shape their minds and enrich their souls. Perhaps most important, for $10 or $15–the cost of a burger and a beer at Poor Herbie’s–alumni can demonstrate their commitment to the enduring value, usefulness, and necessity of the liberal arts education they received at Drew.

By the way, the real problem with the joke about the putative “uselessness” of the liberal arts is that it ignores a basic question: Who came up with the idea in the first place? I’m not a gambler, but I bet it was neither the engineer nor the accountant, but the liberal arts grad. It may even have been a Drew alum.