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Someday it will be 2037…

and Why Having a CC Liberal Arts Education Will Still Matter to Your Adult Child 

By Jack Pottle ’77

On behalf of my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, I would first like to offer my congratulations.  To your children, certainly, they have worked very hard the past four years and are to be commended for what they have accomplished.  But this one is for you, their parents. Please know we appreciate the critical role you have played in this, how hard you have worked, how much you have sacrificed. Thank you for entrusting us with your children,  and congratulations to you on their graduation.

I’ve been asked to comment, from the vantage point of the 35 years since my graduation, on what my CC liberal arts education now means to me.   Was it worth it?  Would I do it again? Did it really make a difference to me and my classmates?  Or as some of you may be internalizing, “So I just spent $200 grand for my kid’s philosophy degree — was this crazy?  Will he ever even be gainfully employed?”

The short answer to all of these questions, thankfully, is yes.   As I put this talk together, I took the opportunity to reflect on my life, and on those of my 1977 classmates, where we are today, what we have been able to apply from the liberal arts education we received. I thought of Mark Norris, a freshman wing mate, who is now president of the senate for the State of Tennessee.    And of Margaret Liu, who went on to study (and teach) at Harvard Medical School; have senior positions at Merck, Chiron, and Transgene; serve as senior advisor on vaccines to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and along the way be named one of the top 50 Women in Science by Discover magazine.  (There are two other CC alumna on that list by the way).   And of course, there is Ken Salazar, a close friend of mine at CC, who was twice elected attorney general for the State of Colorado, then to the United States Senate, and now serves as secretary of the interior, sixth in line for the presidency of the United States.  I know Ken well and he will be the first to say that CC played a big role in defining who he is today.

So maybe my class was just exceptional?  While I would like to think so, not really.  The class ahead had Gregg Easterbrook, now a senior editor of The New Republic, a fellow at the Brookings Institution whose work also appears frequently in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly.  And on the side, he writes “The Tuesday Morning Quarterback” for ESPN.com.  Now there’s the well-rounded liberal artist! 

The class of 1978, the one following mine, has its share of accomplished alums as well.  Like Diana DeGette, who has represented Denver in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 20 years; Dave Mason, an English professor here at CC and poet laureate of Colorado; and Peter Neupert, founder of Drugstore.com and now corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Health Solutions Group (and, by the way, a philosophy major.) So philosophy parents, take heart!

Speaking of majors, Dave Malpass was a physics major at CC.  Somehow he ended up as a deputy assistant secretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration, deputy assistant secretary of state for the first president Bush, then chief economist at Bear Stearns (OK, maybe that last one didn’t end so well). But overall, an illustrious career, and you will see him frequently in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.

And of course there is Neal Baer, the man I am substituting for today.  Neal is kind of the poster child for the CC liberal arts education.  He graduated from CC (also in 1978, one class after me) with a political science degree, studied sociology at Harvard, then graduated from Harvard Medical School, all the while developing his career as a television writer and producer.  He is best known for his work with Emmy-winning “ER” and “Law and Order” and now “Law and Order SVU.”  He also is a practicing pediatrician, teaches and, I guess in this spare time, writes novels and screenplays.  Wow!

My own story is, to put it mildly, more pedestrian.  I graduated with a degree in political economy and then had the extreme good fortune to go to work for a small economic research and consulting firm in Denver.  It was the perfect post CC job — my task was to study something for a few weeks and write a report.  After four years on the Block Plan, I could do that!  I stayed there for ten years, picked up a master’s degree in economics along the way, made partner and helped develop the firm’s telecommunications practice.

I left the consulting business in 1988 to become vice president of operations at Rifkin and Associates, a cable television operating company.  There was a CC tie here; I had graduated with the son of the owner who knew enough about the quality of CC to trust a liberal arts grad with actually running a real business!

Good time for a commercial.  Yesterday at our trustee meeting we began discussion of ways to enhance what we do with our Career Center.  One aspect of this is greater involvement by CC parents in terms of internships, career counseling, first jobs, etc.  So if you get the chance we would appreciate your help — you know how good these kids are.  End of commercial.

Anyway, after six years as VP ops, I became president and chief operating officer of Fanch Communications, a separate cable television company.  We sold this in 1999, after which I became CEO of a startup fiber/telephone company, which we sold in 2006.  I am presently managing director of a private equity fund, help operate a real estate development company, and serve on the board of several other business enterprises.

So what role did my liberal arts education play in my 35-year business career?  Would I have ended up at the same place if I had simply gone to the University of Colorado, focused on business out of the gate, and skipped all that fluffy liberal arts stuff?

Honestly I don’t think so.  It took me a number of years to figure it out, but what really mattered in business, at least for my career, wasn’t narrowly defined technical skills, like how to manipulate a spreadsheet or structure a deal.  Instead, the key determinants of success turned out to be how to analyze a set of facts or quickly assess a business issue, how to effectively solve a problem, to concisely communicate an idea, to write a proposal,  lead a team, clearly articulate a concept, to convince others to willingly follow a particular course of action.   I didn’t fully appreciate my CC education when I graduated. it was only years later, when I looked around and saw where I was in the business world that I came to understand what I had gained from my time at CC.  The class discussions, papers, presentations, one on one with faculty, group projects and, frankly, sports and other extracurriculars, even dorm and social life had honed a set of skills that really positioned me for success, really helped me get to where I was.

I don’t want to denigrate technical knowledge; it obviously plays a critical role and many of your sons and daughters will no doubt go on to get advanced technical degrees that will be really important additions to their CC education. But simple technical knowledge, in my mind, isn’t a good substitute for the skills they gained here.  When I hire new employees I always try to find “the best available athlete,” (essentially the smartest person I can find) and all else equal, favor liberal arts college graduates.  I can teach someone the ins and outs of the cable TV business or telephony, or real estate or whatever — what I don’t have the time or frankly the energy to do is teach people how to think, how to analyze, how to communicate, the skills those with a good liberal arts background generally possess.

I served for a while on the board of a Providence, Rhode Island, company, a techy firm that provides back office software to banks.  They purposely hire English, philosophy, and sociology majors, basically smart grads from Brown and Providence who are having trouble finding jobs.  The deal is this — give us two years before you go to grad school or whatever.  We’ll rotate you through customer service, tech ops, marketing and sales to keep you from getting bored and you’ll either decide you want to stay and grow with us or, worst case, you have some strong business experience on your resume.  And the company does it for the simple reason that it has proven a great way to hire smart problemsolvers.  They found that these bright young grads will do a job that an industry veteran has been doing for a decade and after about a week say something like, “this is really dumb; if you just did it this way you could get a better result with half the effort.”  Many times they are right.  In my experience, it is this kind of quality thinking that your daughters and sons will bring to the business world or whatever occupation they choose to pursue.

I want to close by again talking about my classmates and others I know from my time at CC.  I mentioned several earlier who are well known for the many things they have accomplished. And we are proud of them, for who they are and for how they reflect on Colorado College.  But there are many, many others who are equally accomplished in what they do if maybe not as well recognized for doing it. There is Hank who, along with his wife, has raised two orphans, one from China, one from Vietnam.  And Suzie, who is a leading local philanthropist and patron of the arts.  And Ted, who did a stint as a Vista volunteer and spent his career as an elementary school teacher.  My class has two ministers, Quinn and Coqui, who have dedicated their lives to the social and spiritual well being of their parishioners. There is my friend Paul who is a marketing consultant by day but whose passion is music.  He has cut numerous CD’s and has a strong fan base.   And our class has some amazing educators and coaches and no doubt a whole bunch of “parents of the year.” 

Ask Adam or Ebon, other CC alums; I have no doubt you will hear similar stories of their classmates.

And that brings up Jay Engeln, the man who introduced this session who graduated a few years before me.   Before returning to work at CC, Jay was National Principal of the Year and a nationally recognized youth soccer couch.  That’s CC; that’s who we are.

So from the vantage point of 35 years, I’d like to think that I see CC men and women who think a little deeper, communicate a bit more clearly, see the world more broadly, care a little more about those around them, maybe engage a bit more deeply, live with just a bit more passion. They are truly different people because they were able to attend CC.

This wasn’t necessarily apparent overnight.  My classmates and I started in entry-level jobs, we stubbed our toes, we took a few wrong turns. Your children will too.  But I have to say that the students here at CC, the ones I have had the privilege of meeting, are amazing young men and women who are very well prepared — yes even those who majored in  anthropology or comparative literature — to succeed and thrive however they choose to define that success. It’s going to be a real pleasure watching them do so, and see who they become over the next 25 years.

Again, thanks for sending your children here and congratulations!