Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
Last summer, the crisis surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic found the world, including higher education leaders, struggling to navigate the uncharted territory of a global pandemic without a proven rulebook. It brought unprecedented challenges at a time when we were already assessing how to better serve our students’ social and academic needs.
I recognized the sense of urgency and need for a bold move. So, amid the chaos of the global pandemic, my university completely reorganized its academic infrastructure. We took four schools and 26 departments and ended up with three colleges and 10 interdisciplinary, department-less schools.
The new colleges founded included the College of Sciences and Humanities; the College of Health and Education; and the College of Business, Innovation, Leadership and Technology. This new structure allowed the university to slash overhead costs by more than 50% and offer more relevant, adaptable, in-demand curricula while allowing students a new level of flexibility in their academic programs.
The goal of interdisciplinarity remains elusive at most higher ed institutions. In the book The Innovative University, authors Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring describe the evolution of the American University, starting with the founding of Harvard University. Harvard adopted policies and practices from elite European and American universities and was the trendsetter among others for academic innovation.
Harvard led the establishment of subject matter specialization, departmentalization, professional schools and the trend toward individual colleges and specialized curriculum. Other universities followed Harvard’s model, which explains why universities are often described as a collection of siloed academic colleges.
Industry Leaders Seek Skill Sets That Span Disciplines
As we launched our curriculum growth plan, we held a series of meetings with industry leaders in health, engineering, IT, business and criminal justice to seek their advice. These industry leaders stated the need for graduates with skill sets that span disciplines. For example, they want engineers who can communicate well and clinicians who understand business.
As a university president, I fully understand that providing knowledge is only part of the equation in educating students. We must also encourage students to tap into creativity and utilize complex communication to meet the demands of a changing workforce.
Moving forward, institutions of higher learning should consider focusing on fostering curiosity, courage and resiliency in students while also stressing the vital importance of ethics. Meta-learning, the ability to reflect and adapt to change, should also be a priority in higher education.
Companies around the globe are reevaluating how to quantify “soft skills,” and I’ve observed that employers place a premium on the candidates who possess them. After all, employees armed with strong human skills bring a competitive advantage when working with intelligent machines. Therefore, in addition to the academic restructuring, universities with liberal arts cores can re-think their strategies to incorporate the new skills needed for tomorrow’s innovative workforce in the list of outcomes.
Skills like analytics-based quantitative and intelligent information literacy can prepare graduates for the careers of the 21st century. In addition, while the future of business looks to automation and AI, skills such as for verbal, written and visual communications also continue to be in great demand.
Today, high-quality teamwork and collaboration in the workplace can lead to increased productivity and profitability. The increasingly complex nature of business in the digital era has made urgent the call for team members who can master the people skills required to get things done in an ever-expanding global workplace.
Adaptability, flexibility and agility are must-have skills for new hires, and graduates who possess them will likely be well-primed to meet the demands of a global economy. And for those planning to take on leadership roles, these qualities are critical for successfully guiding employees.
Also, new graduates who find themselves employed at smaller companies or startups must be ready to perform various tasks in a more fluid work environment. There is often an expectation that new hires will hit the ground running and pitch in where needed.
Other On-Campus Opportunities That Help Produce Business Skills
Without question, there are other important by-products of a college education that universities should focus on. Co-curricular campus activities play an essential role in cultivating crucial learning outcomes, such as developing a sense of empathy and collaboration among students. All industries need highly value employees who demonstrate empathy and are capable of critical thinking to better strategize remedies and bring solutions.
Students also benefit significantly from the many opportunities afforded to them in a multi-cultural community. When the shared experiences of a student body celebrate cultural differences, the elevated human skills acquired along the way can increase exponentially. Diversity brings the added benefit of encouraging flexibility in thought, active listening and collaborating with others — all with the bonuses of personal growth and increased cultural competency.
Globalization and diversity further empower employees to realize their full potential in the digital era. Work experience through internships or employment provides students with an excellent environment to see and learn soft skills modeled by industry professionals.
Strong Soft Skills Are Invaluable In The Digital Era
As an engineer, I understand the critical need for soft skills in the digital era. I cannot stress to my students enough the importance of mastering traits like empathy, critical thinking and active listening. After all, new grads determined to succeed in their careers in any industry must contribute, collaborate and communicate well.
There is no question that business today is changing at a rapid clip. To meet the demands of an advanced global economy, universities must prepare students for roles not yet created. Therefore, creating an environment that recognizes and rewards interdisciplinary learning is an innovative way forward for higher education.