As an academic and former private sector executive, I think two leadership traits, among many, are knowledge and intellect. Knowledge is an easily understandable concept, but what do we mean by intellect? What is this abstract concept?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intellect as “the power of knowing as distinguished from the power to feel and to will: the capacity for knowledge,” and “the capacity for rational or intelligent thought especially when highly developed.” The English by Oxford Dictionaries define intellect as “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract matters.”
These definitions immediately make me think of physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this year at age 76. Having trained as an applied chemist and physicist myself, I believe he had one of the greatest intellects of our generation. An interesting tribute in the Wall Street Journal noted that Hawking “made complicated concepts like black holes, time and the history of the cosmos accessible to the masses.” Wheelchair-bound for most of his life, he had Lou Gehrig’s disease from the age of 21 and later communicated through a computerized voice synthesizer. He stirred the imagination with his book A Brief History of Time in 1988, which explains time-space and the history of the universe.
As the president of a small, private, non-profit university, I believe that imparting intellect—or what we generally call critical thinking in the academy—is one of the fundamental values of a university education. Students need to acquire both the “capacity for knowledge” and the “capacity for rational thought” in order to create opportunities and offer solutions to real-world challenges. We need to stimulate diversity of thought and harness the creative power of our students, broadening perspectives across academic boundaries. Our belief is that a university education should develop in our students the ability, desire and confidence to imagine new ideas, to create impact, and to make a difference.
A survey conducted last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, entitled “What Will They Learn?” examines the core curriculum requirements at our nation’s colleges and universities. It stated that, “Companies from Silicon Valley to Wall Street need college graduates who are prepared not only for technical tasks, but also for high-level critical thinking and written communication.” In other words, we in the academy need to focus more on developing intellect and the ability to write at a professional level.
These findings were also highlighted by Payscale’s “2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report.” It found that hiring managers agreed that the most commonly lacking soft skill in new college graduates was critical thinking/problem solving, and that the most commonly lacking hard skill was writing proficiency. The proportion of hiring managers who felt these skills were lacking were 60 percent and 44 percent, respectively. In an era of data science and analytical techniques being used by dynamic, fast-growing, team-based companies like Amazon and Google, these managers also felt that 56 percent of new graduates lacked “attention to detail,” 36 percent lacked “data analysis” skills, and 36 percent lacked “interpersonal skills/teamwork.”
In our defense, is society asking too much of our higher education system? Are we in academic leadership really that far off-course? The public thinks we are: The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported the results of a Pew Research Center survey, which stated that 61 percent of Americans think that higher education is moving in the wrong direction. While high tuition and crippling student debt is influencing this negative view, I believe there are other more fundamental reasons.
Going back to the “What Will They Learn?” survey, it found that 82.4 percent of our colleges and universities do not require a basic course in U.S. government or history, and 41.9 percent of students can graduate without taking a college-level mathematics course. Most alarmingly, 18.8 percent of students are graduating without taking a basic course in English composition!
These studies confirm a hard reality: In general, our colleges and universities are failing to provide the basic skills required to succeed in today’s complex, technological and data-centric society. Thus, we in academic leadership are being challenged to go back to basics. We need to provide the foundations in math and science. We need to emphasize history, economics and world literature so that our students understand the concepts of liberty, justice, morality and our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. We need to educate engaged citizens with the intellectual capacity and hard/soft skills that can contribute to our nation’s economic success while ensuring an international order of peace and prosperity.
In short, we need to reinvigorate the “capacity for knowledge” and the “capacity for rational thought.” Our colleges and universities need to nurture a reasoning mind. While intellect may be an abstract concept, it is a critical component of an educated society that is increasingly facing challenges to free inquiry and free speech. This may seem like ancient history, but the Roman statesman Cicero said over 2,100 years ago: “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”