The Last Word

America’s Secret Economic Weapon

By Molly Corbett Broad

Over the last several years a number of major reports and best-selling books–such as the final report of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat–have wondered about America’s future competitiveness in our global economy. How are we to compete with growing technology powerhouses like China and India when we rank ninth in the world in college attainment?

Each author singles out education–particularly higher education–as the key to America’s continued economic dominance, pointing to the need for Americans to be educated in math and science, to develop critical thinking skills, and to enhance their cultural understanding. Perhaps more than ever before in our history, a well-educated citizenry appears crucial to America’s ability to confront the challenges of the future. Our standard of living and place in the world as a leading democracy, the quality of life in our communities, and the strength of our economy all depend on Americans who are better and more fully educated than ever before.

While the challenges facing America appear more than daunting, I believe that our nation’s colleges and universities can help our country tackle those challenges head on. Why am I so confident? I know we have some of the brightest minds in the world on our faculties–and our institutions are led by dynamic and visionary presidents and chancellors who understand the stakes and are ready to do their part, including President Jim Mullen.

Liberal arts colleges like Allegheny have a rich and distinguished history in our country, and they have enhanced their residential educational model to meet the changing needs of society. However, at their core, they continue to focus on the needs of their students as individuals and foster interaction with faculty in a way that stimulates learning, innovation, and leadership.

Though graduates of liberal arts colleges are small in number compared to those attending other types of institutions, they are disproportionately represented among leaders in the arts, education, science and medicine, public service, and business. For example, on a per capita basis, liberal arts colleges produce nearly twice as many students who earn a Ph.D. in science as other institutions. It may be an overstatement to call our nation’s liberal arts colleges “America’s Secret Economic Weapon,” but they surely have a key role to play in maintaining our country’s economic competitiveness.

And if they are to continue to produce leaders and innovators, liberal arts colleges themselves need the commitment of leaders who can continue the momentum despite tough economic times. That is why I am confident that Allegheny is in good hands with Jim Mullen. I can’t think of a better person to be in such a key position and such an important institution at this critical time.

Jim takes the helm of Allegheny at a time when the responsibilities of leadership have never been greater, when the tasks have never been more challenging, when the obstacles have never been more formidable–but also when the opportunities within higher education have never been greater.

In a global economy where the only constant is change, colleges need good managers. But much more so, we need visionary leaders who can establish goals and galvanize people and resources. Jim Mullen brings these qualities to Allegheny at a pivotal point in its history. His expertise, boundless energy, sound judgment, and uncommon devotion to the ideals of higher education have all been clearly established.

Equally important, he is a man of tremendous integrity, one whose personal code and values are well aligned with the historic values of Allegheny College. I recall one of his communications to alumni and parents as president of the University of North Carolina-Asheville, when Jim echoed the sentiments expressed by theologian John Henry Newman in his essay “The Idea of a University,” reminding them that “we are keepers of a tradition that not only celebrates learning for its own sake, but also requires us to inspire our graduates to achieve more than knowledge gained, degrees earned, and jobs secured. It requires us to encourage them to improve the human condition, to make a difference in the world.”

Jim is clearly someone who, working side by side with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees, can help Allegheny College make a difference in this world. It gives me great personal satisfaction to be both a friend and a mentor of Jim’s. It gives me great professional satisfaction, as someone representing higher education nationally and internationally, to know that we have leaders like Jim and institutions like Allegheny helping us teach the people who solve the problems and change the world.

Molly Corbett Broad is the president of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, representing more than 1,600 college and university presidents and more than 200 related associations.

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.