2019 Phi Beta Kappa Lecture: UofL President Neeli Bendapudi

President Neeli Bendapudi presenting the 2019 Phi Beta Kappa lecture


University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi presented the 14th annual Phi Beta Kappa lecture titled “The Liberal Arts in a Global Economy” on March 5, 2019.  The lecture followed a ribbon-cutting ceremony for UofL’s newly renovated Portland art studio and archaeological laboratory space at 1606 Rowan St.

Bendapudi joined UofL as its 18th president in May, 2018. She most recently had been University of Kansas provost and executive vice chancellor after serving that school as business school dean. She also taught at The Ohio State University and Texas A&M University and served as a banking executive. She earned her doctorate in marketing from University of Kansas and her bachelor’s in English and master of business administration degrees from Andhra University in India.

For more information about Dr. Bendapudi, visit the UofL Office of the President website.

Read an abridged and adapted version of the lecture.


The Liberal Arts in a Global Economy

The article below—"The Liberal Arts in a Global Economy"—is an abridged version of a talk UofL President Neeli Bendapudi gave on 3/5/19. The lecture was given as the annual Phi Beta Kappa Lecture presented by the College of Arts & Sciences in partnership with the Phi Beta Kappa Association of Kentuckiana. Over the years, the lecture series has welcomed several speakers of national prominence covering a broad range of topics and intellectual interests, all demonstrating the importance of the arts and sciences to society.

Because I am a professor at heart, please indulge me in a brief recap of what the liberal arts have meant to humanity, and why the debate about the value of the liberal arts is not new at all. In preparing for this talk, I asked a few friends and young people inside and outside of academe what we mean when we talk about the liberal arts. It was interesting that so many people did not know that the liberal arts have nothing to do with a political persuasion.

The liberal arts were the characteristics, the preparation, the foundation that would be required by a liberal or free citizenry. This is the idea that a democracy is only as strong as its people and that an educated citizenry would benefit from learning how to think, critique, collaborate, and communicate. From Dubois to Gandhi to Mandela, one hears the refrain that education is the key to liberation and to the preservation of a free as opposed to an enslaved population. A witty colleague suggested the question would be less controversial if we dubbed our studies Conservative Arts.

And today, we find ourselves tasked with defending the liberal arts in the global economy. There is a great deal of angst about a young person going to college to pursue a liberal arts degree. Parents are worried about whether the tremendous investments of time and money will lead to their child graduating with a college degree that goes nowhere in terms of a job. Politicians of every stripe feel compelled based on their preference or pet peeve, to chide colleges for churning out too many anthropologists, or philosophers or graduates of one language or another. Yet, I believe that a strong liberal arts education is the best preparation for addressing the challenges of globalization. Why? Because a liberal arts education teaches what the National Education Association terms the four C’s of education – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

1. Critical thinking.

Critical thinking allows one to have not just many jobs but many careers and many roles. I think about this as living not just the length of one’s life but the breadth of it. Nearly 200 years ago, The Yale Report of 1828: Liberal Education and Collegiate Life asserted that “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. Those branches of study should be prescribed, and those modes of instruction adopted, which are best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for investigation; following, with accurate discrimination, the course of argument; balancing nicely the evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating, and controlling the imagination; arranging, with skill, the treasures which memory gathers; rousing and guiding the powers of genius.”

Why is this ability to think more important than what you store in memory? In a February 9, 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal, our Louisville job market was ranked #8 most vulnerable to automation by the Brookings Institution, with an average of 48% of our jobs at risk. Machines have memory but not minds. That means both critical thinking and creativity will be integral to the jobs of the future.

"The future belongs to a very different kind of person, with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people will reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys."
 —Daniel Pink

2. Creativity.

I have been preaching the creativity gospel at least since 1998. Machines can do pretty much anything we do faster, cheaper, and with less attitude. The human ability to create is our differentiator.   

Daniel Pink declares “The future belongs to a very different kind of person, with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people will reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” He goes on to say, “In a world enriched by abundance but disrupted by the automation and outsourcing of white-collar work, everyone must cultivate an artistic sensibility. We may not all be Dali or Degas. But today we must all be designers.” (A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future, 2016)

3. Collaboration.

Often today, teams will be working with members from across the globe. There are few lone rangers anymore. We must come together quickly, bond as a team, deliver results, and then be prepared to move on. Most of the time, when people are let go, it is because they cannot work well with others. We hire for hard skills and we fire for soft skills.

Additionally, collaboration is helped when we have shared metaphors and when we have empathy for one another. That’s where storytelling comes in. The activity of telling or writing stories, can accelerate collaboration while honoring diverse perspectives.  The social sciences and humanities teach us not only how to tell a story but also how to listen for one and interpret when necessary.

4. Communication.

In Mortimer Adler’s book How to Speak; How to Listen, to communicate is to establish something in common. To communicate, one must understand the other person, be able to see the world from their perspective. Oral and written skills are among the top most desired in college students and yet they are areas that are always listed as weaknesses among graduates.

Many years ago at Ohio State University at a student show, I heard an audience member yell to a performer, “I see you.” I had not heard that before and then I noticed other people yelling it as well. As I looked into it more, I learned that it was traceable back to an African tradition of greeting a person by saying, “I see you.” It wasn’t just saying “I see you – your physical presence,” but rather that “I acknowledge you – the story you bring, the ancestors that brought you here. I recognize your presence in this world.” How very powerful.

The traditional response to “I see you” is “I am here.” Why is that so important to communication? To be fully present to another and to their reality, to simply sit with them as they process a moment in time, is the greatest gift one can give. That is what we see in the plaintive and poignant Hebrew declaration, “Hineni.” Translation: Here I am.   

Linguistic competence, cross-cultural communication, empathy—these skills are more likely to be elicited by a broad-based liberal arts education.

5. (Connection.)

In closing, I would like to venture a fifth C— Connection or Connectedness. I firmly believe that we want to belong to something larger than ourselves, that we long to see connection and feel connected. The social sciences and humanities teach us not only how to tell a story but also how to listen for one and interpret it when necessary. So, in the spirit of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, I would like to end with this 500 BCE non-denominational Sanskrit prayer meant to be recited together by teacher and student.                              

Om, may we be protected together
May we be nourished together
May we work together with great vigor
May our study be enlightening
May no obstacle arise between us
Om peace, peace, peace

To find out how you can help ensure the future of liberal arts in higher education, go to uofl.me/as-defend.