People of Higher Ed: Bentley University President Gloria Larson
Gloria Larson calls herself something of an "accidental tourist" into higher ed administration, but says it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. As Larson looks to step down following the end of this school year, she spoke to Education Dive about her love for millennials and 'The Voice' and reflected on the need for higher ed to adopt a more outside-in model of thinking.
As you get ready to leave the institution, how would you reflect over your career in higher education?
It has been such a rewarding experience. I think sort of late in my career and life I discovered this notion that you could have this very strong liberal arts background, infused with some pragmatic instruction.
It’s been such a blessing to see the school further evolve in this way of fusion. I think many schools are still figuring out that it’s an and, not an or.
Some ability to have both lifelong learning skills and the ability to have technical skill sets, more specific skill sets is really a great combination.
What does innovation on a college campus look like to you?
I do think it’s something that you can learn. I think previously, I thought oh my goodness, innovation is something that you sort of acquire along the way without knowing that you are [acquiring the habit]. Some people are naturally innovative and others aren’t, but I think what it means to me — the book that I read right before I came to Bentley was Daniel Pink’s “A whole new mind” … about how the global innovation economy requires both left and right brain thinking. I think to me it’s this ability to learn through both liberal arts learning and this more analytical thinking … to be able to cross disciplines and be able to think about it in really sort of an innovative way.
I think that’s what you get when you don’t just do a deep dive into one subject area, when you learn broader; combining philosophy courses with economics courses makes all of the sense in the world, when you think about how you’ll have to be a problem solver.
It’s sort of the synergy that comes from that that leads to this level of creativity that allows you to innovate.
I don’t think there’s any one definition. I think you can acquire the knowledge and the skill sets that allow you to sort of deepen that ability.
What we’ve tried to get away from at Bentley is this notion that we are educating and preparing you for any highly specific set of things — yes you might be a marketing major and you might double major in the liberal arts are of global affairs, but the nature of how you’re thinking about it … we want that flexibility for our students, we want them to be nimble.
Innovation is something that can be both learned and practiced.
You mentioned Daniel Pink’s book — What are you currently reading or watching?
I’m so glad you asked that question! I’ve been reading Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” the book that was the follow-up, or really the prequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The reason I read that was because I went to law school because I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was 12 years old and new then that I wanted to be this morally upright, Gregory Peck-type Atticus Finch figure from reading the book, and then seeing the movie
My whole world was turned upside down by reading the book that Harper Lee actually wrote first. He wasn’t the person we thought he was in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he was a much more nuanced person in his time and did have some segregationist views, and did have some struggle with ideas about race.
Lifelong learning should be about further examining things you accept as fact in your own life … questioning your own instincts and insights and what you regard as fact.
I’m also a huge devotee of “Downtown Abbey,” but I have a long list of things that because of my work I haven’t been able to watch on TV. I can’t believe i’m going to tell you this, but I have a guilty pleasure, which is “The Voice.” I’m addicted to “The Voice.” Maybe because I don’t have a good voice. … I just love the concept and just have become completely addicted. So some of the students know it and they’ll begin comparing notes when they see me around on campus.
That probably works well in building that rapport with students, right?
Because the students know me well at Bentley, at freshman convocation, I tell them to please call me Gloria, so they tell me all kinds of things. They tell me about things they think only I can fix, they tell me about their friendships, if they’re no longer dating someone I saw them with at a football game, they come and tell me.
I came to Bentley because I fell in love with millenials at my law firm. They’re such a global, connected generation.
Being here has only reinforced those thoughts. That’s why I’m so passionate about this type of education I think they should get. It’s just so frustrating when companies say to me ‘why aren’t kids coming out of college with these critical skillsets?’ And I think it’s just because higher ed is so slow to evolve. And I think we’re in a place where the price point is so high that … if colleges don’t learn to innovate while teaching their students to innovate … higher education could really be at a tipping point.
What’s next for you, as you look beyond life as president of Bentley University?
Somewhere towards the end of this year, I’ll have a better sense. I still want to be connected in some way to higher education. I don’t have any desire to be a serial president. I consider myself kind of an accidental tourist in the college presidency.
I’m really taking a step back and thinking, you know, what can I do that would have impact and at the same time be as rewarding as this. I’m not sure, given the students that I’ve been blessed to know that there’s anything that’s going to be as rewarding as this. So it could be something that’s radically different — stay tuned!
I think what I’m hoping is that more and more schools really start to think harder about the student population and the marketplace they’re entering — have a more outside-in perspective. Almost every industry I know starts with the industry or the client, and I think it’s high time that higher ed do that too — think more outside-in rather than this bubble that higher ed has been in.
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