At the recent Virginia Education Summit, in front of an audience of legislators and renowned university presidents, I daringly stated: An undergraduate degree based on the arts and sciences is the best preparation for the the workforce of tomorrow. . Without exception. As an entrepreneur and techie, humanist and educator, I subscribe to this statement.
We aspire to prepare students to be engaged citizens, successful professionals and whole human beings. These are highly compatible aspirations.
College graduates must have the essential capabilities to be critical, agile, multidimensional and adaptable thinkers, ready to face the fast pace of change that we know we have to wait – and what we can not yet know. The speed of technological transformation is indisputable. And this speed places great emphasis on intellectual agility, multidimensionality, and the ability to manage change ethically, in a data and value-based way.
With the basic quantitative skills, the future workforce will need depth and wisdom. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute on the US workforce entitled "Competition in a data-driven world" underlines this point. The most critical issue on the horizon for each sector is how best to exploit its new data capabilities.
How will companies address fundamental business challenges in a computerized way using the next generation of artificial intelligence? And how will they handle the new ethical and human challenges related to the use of these data? The McKinsey study indicates that we will need about 250,000 data scientists in the United States in the coming years. We know that we will still need skilled computer scientists in artificial intelligence.
What is more difficult – and less well recognized – is that McKinsey predicts that we will need 4 million "professional translators".
These professional translators can analyze ever-changing data types and craft solutions aligned with the values and missions of the organization. James Shulman explained in an article for the Mellon Foundation: "These translators must look like people who live on the borders of two countries and who, by necessity, speak the language of these two countries in order to carry out their daily activities."
These translators are our graduates in liberal arts and science.
Let me give you an example of how students, faculty and staff use this type of thinking in my university. William & Mary hosts AidData, the world leader in reliable information on foreign aid. But AidData did not start as a power plant. She started in 2003 as a specialized undergraduate thesis, when a W & M student decided to create a global aid database, which did not exist at that time.
Today, the initiative follows nearly $ 5.5 trillion in development funding and is recognized as one of the world's best resources for policymakers, financiers and industry to make geopolitical decisions based on data. AidData is a thriving interdisciplinary research laboratory that has generated more than $ 40 million worth of research at the university.
The questions that guided the first cycle of W & M were not born of statistics or computer modeling, although both toolkits are needed to answer them. These questions were rooted in the breadth of a path of arts and sciences that encourages research and investigation in areas such as international relations, history, modern languages, geography, African studies, etc. .
The ability to synthesize various types of evidence in dynamic and ambiguous environments – and to communicate easily with different audiences about what this evidence means and why it is important – is what distinguishes a professional translator from a technician or an encoder .
AidData is just one example among others of why universities, which focus on a rigorous artistic and scientific core that interests emerging fields such as data analysis, can have a considerable impact on the preparation of citizens and professionals to a rapidly changing world.
Barely three months into my twenty-three year tenure as William & Mary's 28th President, I quickly learn of the commitment to excellence in higher education in Virginia. Based on the response that I received from elected leaders and their colleagues at the summit, I am encouraged for its future.
We owe students an education for the whole person and for their entire career. Knowledge of information technologies and technologies, based on the diversity of the arts and sciences, and with the wisdom to find value both in continuity and in change: they are the problem solvers that each industry and each community will attach the greatest importance to the coming years.
Katherine A. Rowe is the President of the College of William & Mary.