NOTIONS: Hoosier college presidents teach a liberal arts lesson

Last Monday morning, my work took me to West Lafayette. When I learned that Purdue University would name a new president that afternoon, I decided to stick around for the festivities.

Hundreds of people gathered in the Loeb Playhouse for the one-agenda-item trustees’ meeting. The vote was unanimous. The introductory speech outlined an “out-of-this-world” resume. And out from behind the curtain emerged 59-year-old France Córdova: astrophysicist, university administrator, creative writer-someone Purdue board chair J. Timothy McGinley called “truly a Renaissance person.”

“There are lots of ‘firsts’ with my presidency,” Córdova said, “First woman, first X-ray astronomer, first NASA chief scientist, first Latina, first soccer mom.”

The crowd laughed. I smiled at how quickly an astrophysicist soccer mom could realign the planets.

Had a few votes swung differently these past few months, we could have found ourselves this fall with women CEOs serving four leading universities in the heart of conservative Indiana. At Purdue, Ball State, IU and Ivy Tech, searches came down to the wire with women finalists.

Even with men winning the latter two contests, the glass ceiling that for too long kept too many women out of top jobs with top pay seems to have been shattered-at least in academia.

The presidencies at our state’s universities look more like the real world in other ways, too. The long-exclusive WASP-male bastion is now filled with the likes of Asian-American Bobby Fong at Butler University, native-Australian Michael McRobbie replacing African-American Adam Herbert at IU and Latina Córdova taking the reins at Purdue.

Couple that with a woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a mixed-race man, Barack Obama, slugging it out for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency, and one can easily see little girls and little boys of all races finally and realistically being able to say, “When I grow up, I could be president.”

But beyond the obvious ramifications for equal opportunity and hard-won achievement, I found another cause for smiling at Córdova’s announcement: the triumph of liberal arts education.

My own sons head off to college this fall. One will pursue a degree in photography, the other a degree in English. Both have heard repeatedly (not from me, mind you) the proverbial warnings to study something less artsy and more practical.

A liberal arts graduate myself, I’ve countered these cautions for several years by quoting Butler’s Bobby Fong.

Fong tells students they likely will experience five or six career changes (not jobs, but careers) during their working lives. And some of those careers will involve roles that haven’t even been invented or imagined today.

Fong also argues that the best way to prepare for those career changes is to marry practical training in some skill-be that writing, photography, pharmacy, business, or whatever piques one’s interest-with the long-term versatility instilled by a liberal arts education.

In other words, if my kids emerge from college knowing even better than they do today how to visualize and verbalize, they’ll have a practical skill on which they can immediately capitalize. But while they’re at it, they’d best continue their broader exposure to the world and how it works.

From now on, I’ll cite Fong’s theory and use Córdova’s example to prove my case.

While a seventh-grade science fair project got her interested in the symmetry of atoms, Córdova began her undergraduate years analyzing something far less concrete: English literature.

She also did anthropology research at a Zapotec Indian pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico. She used what she learned to write a novel, and won an award for it.

She also used what she learned on the pueblo to write a cookbook. That landed her a guest editorship with Mademoiselle magazine.

But at age 22, when she saw Neil Armstrong land on the moon, she thought she might want to be something different by the time she reached 30.

Ten years later, she had a doctorate in physics from Cal Tech and began a decade of astronomy and astrophysics work at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Then she went to Penn State to head the Department of Astronomy and Physics.

Then she went to NASA to become the primary scientific advisor to the NASA administrator.

Then she moved into university administration in California, eventually becoming chancellor at U.C. Riverside.

Now, she’s going to run the university in my hometown.

Along the way, that English degree has come in handy, too. Córdova’s published more than 150 scientific papers and reports, and, she confessed on Monday, she’s been known to spend too much time editing her colleagues’ memos.

Lesson to my sons and anyone else who wants to succeed: It’s not just what you’re doing today that matters; it’s what you’re learning about yourself and the world along the way, and what star you choose to shoot for next.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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