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Nancy Smith

Gov. Rick Scott's Liberal Arts Masterstroke

October 16, 2011 - 6:00pm

It's about time somebody had the cojones to challenge the liberal arts crowd on the veracity of degrees that aren't working in the 21st century workplace.

And wouldn't you know, that somebody would be Rick Scott. Whatever you say about our governor, the man knows how to let a sacred cow out of the barn.

"How many more jobs do you think there are in anthropology in this state?" Scott asked a gathering of businessmen at a luncheon last week. "Do we need to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't. I want to make sure we spend our money where people can get jobs when they get out."

Attack liberal arts degrees? Oh, my, how dare he?

Scott was making a fairly obvious point: Liberal arts majors aren't what business today needs. Majors in science, technology, engineering and math -- that's what the state needs to lure and feed more high-tech businesses.

But as soon as the governor made his point, the sky opened up and rained brickbats.

Never mind that the governor's daughter, Jordan Kandah, has an anthropology degree herself, or that the governor was only using anthropology as one example of liberal arts fuddy-duddyism among the state's colleges and universities. Out came the American Anthropological Association in protest. In a sharp statement to Scott, association president Virginia Dominguez wrote, "Perhaps you are unaware that anthropologists are leaders in our nation's top science fields."

Out came the usual suspects in the press, too. The St. Petersburg Times, for example, gave its "loser of the week" to a trio: Plato, Shakespeare and James Madison. The Times said, "Sorry liberal arts majors and professors, but Gov. Rick Scott made it clear last week he has little use for you. In the name of job creation, he wants Florida universities to focus much more on science, technology, engineering and math."

Let's be honest here.

All the governor did was launch a long-overdue dialogue with the Florida business community and state colleges and universities. He believes higher education could do a better job calibrating its focus with the 21st century job market's. And, boy, could it ever.

Who doesn't know at least one college grad with an abstract liberal arts degree, shouldering six-figure student loans and few job prospects? Where were those tenured heads of the philosophy or the fine arts departments when the student loan collectors came calling?

The universities have done liberal arts students a huge disservice. What stress might they have avoided had they been urged to make students more marketable.

A South Florida businessman told me this after Scott's luncheon address: "I have never had a recently graduated college student -- and we've hired dozens over the last 10 years -- come to us with even marginally proficient skills in Excel, even though we and most other businesses use that program every day. The governor is right."

We're big on outcomes in education here in Florida. So, how come we terrorize the seventh grade teacher making $37,000 a year on FCAT outcomes, but the tenured professor making a six-figure salary has no accountability for the outcomes of his final work product in the real world? Shouldn't college professors be held to the same standard?

Does the state have any studies or benchmarks that show how graduates of Florida universities do in the job market after a year, five years? How does each discipline do -- liberal arts and otherwise? Scott got the conversation started. Let's not let it drop now.

This is an opinion column: Reach Nancy Smith at or at (850) 727-0859.

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