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A Living Room Conversation

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"A four-year liberal arts education doesn't prepare kids for work, and it never has," claimed a senior research scientist in Alina Tugend's June 30 article in the New York Times. Moreover, some believe that the gap between what colleges produce and what employers want is widening. As chancellor of Albion College, a four-year liberal arts institution, I find such statements troubling. What happened and what can we do?

Perhaps an analogy can help explain the current relationship between many colleges and employers. Colleges welcome employers on campus... but only to their "porch," which is typically the Career Development Office. Here employers are encouraged to interview students for internships and jobs, and they are invited to participate in career fairs. While on campus those employers typically interact with dedicated Career Development staff. But rarely are they invited into the "living room" of the college... the academic side of the house where the faculty resides and where curricular action takes place.

Faculty and employers need to be in the same living space to have serious and collegial conversations about college preparation. The academic side of the house should invite employers into the living room for constructive dialogue. Faculty must be open to feedback from current and future employers about the performance of their graduates in order to develop a better understanding of the complexities and pressures of the workplace (and, especially, the need for graduates to command technology, regardless of major), and they should thoughtfully assess if their learning outcomes complement the needs of the workplace. In turn, employers need to recognize the quality and talent of the faculty, to affirm that faculty members are responsible for pedagogy, and to deepen their appreciation for a broadly educated citizenry. At Albion, we not only seek to prepare students for their next step after graduation and for multiple career changes, but we also aspire to graduate future leaders and responsible citizens.

As is the case in higher education, the health care industry is under intense public scrutiny. Questions are raised about cost, effectiveness, perceived value and accountability. One health system, Georgia Regents Health System, recently announced a new partnership that would bring an equipment manufacturer, Royal Philips, into its "living room" to help the hospital realize its mission of providing better care to patients at reduced cost. This creative partnership would provide Philips with complete access to the health care system so the manufacturer could more fully understand work flow and patient care standards. In turn, Georgia Regents wants the manufacturer to think from the hospital's point of view and to help the hospital deliver better and less expensive patient care.

While such bold partnerships may be rare in higher education, I believe that many colleges are at least beginning to open doors to their living rooms. For instance, through its pre-professional institutes, Albion College provides opportunities for faculty interaction with employers. Current and potential employers are invited to sit on institute advisory boards, and, seated alongside faculty, they discuss strategy and curricular needs. Faculty, in turn, are invited to attend industry meetings to discuss emerging trends and to visit work sites so that they can develop a better understanding of what it means to be "workforce ready."

Most recently, Albion College participated in an innovative program designed by the Michigan Colleges Foundation, a consortium of 14 independent liberal arts colleges and universities. The foundation, recognizing the symbiotic relationship between industry and higher education, brought 45 business HR leaders and college presidents together to develop new strategies to prepare college graduates for careers within Michigan. A key focus of the event was how to improve employer and college faculty engagement and awareness and to identify promising pilot strategies.

The path forward is clear. Employers and faculty need to come together to communicate more fully, to share perspectives more openly, and to deepen trust. After all, we share the same goal: we want to develop and retain a highly educated, talented workforce that can solve our nation's problems.