5/29/2015 Daniel R. Porterfield

President’s Perspective: Charting a Course for Success

This magazine article is part of Spring 2015 / Issue 81

Spring is a time of transition. At F&M, the campus begins to transform as trees produce their first blooms, grass emerges after months of snow, and students return to populating Hartman Green on sunny days. Inside the classrooms, labs, and libraries, too, students make academic transitions, submitting the last paper, taking the final exam, and—for sophomores—achieving the milestone of choosing a major.

This process celebrates F&M’s values and our embodiment of collaborative liberal arts education. Students and faculty work together to help sophomores settle into new academic homes. These new homes—the majors—represent a movement to academic depth for students, and moving toward it in the classroom creates the mindset and skillset necessary to recognize and work with depth in all things, while still maintaining the broad knowledge base cultivated by a liberal arts education. The choice of major is empowering and may feel like a culmination of achievements for students, but it marks the beginning, not the end, of an intellectual journey—one that will last a lifetime.

F&M graduates alumni who go on to make deep contributions in all sections of our society. Ken Mehlman ’88 was selected by President George W. Bush to lead his successful reelection campaign in 2004. Mary Schapiro ’77 was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and thus regulate Wall Street in 2008. Patricia Harris ’77, the CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, leads an organization that will invest billions of dollars in the next decade to make our world a better and healthier place. Wanda Austin ’75 leads America's space defense as president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation. And this year’s F&M Commencement speaker, Richard Plepler ’81, is the chairman and CEO of HBO, which has massive cultural influence across the planet.

 
  • Jake Bleacher ’00, who majored in geology at F&M, speaks with students and faculty members in the Department of Earth & Environment about his career as a planetary geologist at NASA. Jake Bleacher ’00, who majored in geology at F&M, speaks with students and faculty members in the Department of Earth & Environment about his career as a planetary geologist at NASA. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

We’ve launched just 450 to 550 students per year over the past 35 years, and we are overrepresented in societal leadership—local, national, and global—because of the quality of our education and the quality  of our student body.

But Mary Schapiro didn’t major in being the SEC chair; she majored in anthropology. Richard Plepler didn’t major in HBO; he majored in government. Wanda Austin didn’t major in space defense; she majored in math. These leaders pursued here a transformational education with an institution that involved them in intensive learning, and with that they’ve had a disproportionate impact on our nation and the world.

This liberal arts tradition of education is more relevant today than ever. As others turn to mass education in the form of MOOCs, larger lectures, and online courses, students with the ability to ask penetrating questions, think critically, conduct research, solve complex problems, communicate, and work in fast-paced, multicultural settings will be best positioned.

We are enmeshed in a volatile global knowledge economy defined by lightning-fast changes in  technology, compensation, job types, skill sets and work locations. For our nation and our world to advance, we need citizens who possess intellectual agility, science competency, language skills, ease with diversity, and the flexibility to work in new ways—skills best forged in the crucible of a place-based, individualized liberal arts education. We need to develop—through education—those women and men able to make and shape change in every field, from healthcare to national security, from economic development to engineering, and from public policy to education itself.

Our students pursue at F&M a transformational education that will empower them to tackle the great challenges facing our nation and world. With their talent and an F&M education at their back, they will succeed.

“The choice of major is empowering and may feel like a culmination of achievements for students, but it marks the beginning, not the end, of an intellectual journey—one that will last a lifetime.”
Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
President Daniel R. Porterfield
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