Making a case for higher learning

Dr. Jeffrey Senese, the president of Saint Leo University, talked about the role and importance of higher education in today’s society during a breakfast meeting of the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.

The leader of one of the nation’s largest Catholic universities tackled what he called public misperceptions regarding the words “liberal arts.”

Saint Leo University President Dr. Jeffrey Senese speaks about the importance of a college education during a Nov. 6 breakfast meeting at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus. (Brian Fernandes)

“They’re ‘bad’ words today,” Senese said, noting that the word “liberal” has a political connotation and the word “arts” has the stigma of unemployment attached to it.

Senese contends that those notions aren’t true.

“Math and sciences are liberal arts,” Senese said, and so is the study of “universal principles.”

Indeed, the state requires that a large portion of an academic degree be focused on the liberal arts, “so when people leave the university, they have this broad skillset in addition to their major,” Senese said.

The image of higher education also has declined, the Saint Leo president acknowledged, noting that 61 percent of the population doesn’t like the direction in which it is heading.

Reasons contributing to that include the media’s portrayal of institutions and the  hyperpolitical partisan environment in which we live, he said.

The private college president also addressed the concern about rising tuition.

Some costs result from meeting campus regulations, and also from the expense of hiring personnel who can meet students’ expectations and needs, he said.

Academia itself is also at fault for its image because learning institutions do a poor job of communicating and justifying the benefits of a higher education, Senese said.

Professors allowing their political views to influence their teaching and employers’ dissatisfaction by the inability of recent graduates to perform well in the workplace also contribute to negative views, he said.

To help change that, Senese implored business owners and employers in the audience to play an active role on advisory boards to ensure that students graduate with the necessary skills.

“If you’re not getting what you need, speak up and help us,” Senese said.

He also addressed the perception that online courses are not up-to-par with the traditional classroom setting.

Online courses, he explained are provided as a matter of convenience for students, especially older ones, who are bound by their job and family life.

“A lot of online students would love to take in-class [courses] if they could,” the college president said.

Despite criticisms of higher education, Senese noted that an academic degree has definite benefits.

The unemployment rate is much lower for those with a bachelor’s degree, he said.

Liberal arts graduates also tend to have a 30 percent to 100 percent chance of being in a leadership role, and they are  22 percent to 66 percent more likely to contribute back to their society in a charitable way, he said.

And, on a personal level, those with degrees tend to have longer marriages and better family lives, he added.

Senese was named the university’s 10th president in July. He had been serving as acting president since April, after William J. Lennox Jr., stepped down from the role.

Senese’s remarks came during the chamber’s monthly business breakfast meeting on Nov. 6, at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel.

Senese is a Pennsylvania State University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He also has a master’s degree in criminology at Indiana State University and has a Ph.D. in criminal justice/research methods/statistics from Michigan State University.

Published November 28, 2018

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