Last week four of us from the CSU Office of the Chancellor went 20 miles east to Cal State Long Beach, where we met with the president, provost, faculty, and a phalanx of administrators. Among our campuses their record for graduating students and reducing achievement gaps is unusually strong, and we wanted to learn how they did it. No real surprises: passion, dedication at the very top, and about ten years of relentless hard work. The epiphanies were in the details.
At one point we heard that the College of the Arts, and in particular its major in art, is enormous. Something like 3,000 students. And, we were told with a certain pride: “they all get jobs.” A surprising number are entrepreneurs.
It reminded me of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about a company called Jump Associates. It’s a thinktank for, well, thinking. They make stuff up for you, reimagining your business from fresh angles, cooking up a compelling narrative for six figures a month. It sounded a lot like screenwriting, but with more buyers.
I read a story like that, and think about Cal State Long Beach, and it makes me proud of what we do. They serve neighborhoods that are both tony and not, and many of their students come in not ready for college. Either they were poor students in high school, or good students in bad high schools. So the Long Beach campus set up a “seamless education” project with the local unified school district and community college, to plug the leaky pipeline. And out the other end we get high-wage creative types, driving the regional economy while pulling themselves up the ladder.
There are down sides of course. For one, not all of the arts majors are tycoon wannabees. Some of them like art, and want to make it. A whole lot of them want to teach it, and so churning out thousands of them comes with a certain pang when our schools keep cutting their art programs.
The other undertow has a certain irony. The students we’re proudest of serving, the ones who barely make it to college, who struggle to fit us into their lives, who are blazing trails for families unfamiliar with — and even skeptical of — the whole university experience, are the hardest to convince. They come for the degree in engineering, health care management, or business. If we offered a degree called Employabilitology they would jump. They took all the risk they need just by coming here, and sure don’t want to squander that on a major that sounds flaky. And thank God for it: we need engineers, health care workers, and business execs more than we need dropouts.
But here’s the thing. All of those people need art. They need to learn how to create. And apparently, those who didn’t get enough of it in college will pay a lot to outsource their innovating to companies like Jump.
Somehow, more than most, Cal State Long Beach may have made that case.