This interview was first published in Italian in Federmanager's magazine and was written by Dina Galano. You can view the original here.
Federmanager is an association that has, since 1945, represented the managers of companies producing goods and services exclusively by stipulating collective agreements and guaranteeing services and protection through entities and companies.
The American University of Rome has been working with Federmanager on various projects. This month, their internal magazine asked for an interview with AUR's new president.
Can you describe the “American way” of education? Which are the strong points of that approach? And, in your opinion, what of the American teaching method would the Italian students really appreciate?
At an American University - especially at what we call a Liberal Arts university - students are treated as individual learners and are encouraged to explore their own interests and sense of purpose. They are also taught to solve problems creatively and from different disciplinary perspectives. The goal is mental flexibility, an openness to embracing the unknown, the search for creative solutions to important contemporary challenges. Many students won’t settle on a major (a core subject matter) until their second year. Even then, many students won’t focus on a single discipline, but will add a minor in another discipline that either complements the major, creates a tension with it (combining say the arts, Italian or philosophy and business) or is studied to pursue a personal interest. When combined with “general education,” a palette of electives, student activities and travel, you can see that an American university education at AUR is not simply a route to a narrowly-focused career (which can quickly become obsolete); it’s a process of holistic development designed for long-term adaptation to a global economy in constant evolution.
The classroom experience at an American university is likely to be different than Italian students are used to. Classes are not generally lectures with a professor at the front of the class passing knowledge and information to students. US university classes involve a lot of contentious conversation and debate—with the professor and between students. I like to call this “lateral learning.” The process of discovery is a shared one, where the professor may direct students towards certain paths of exploration, but it’s the students themselves who test the new directions without quite knowing where they are headed—as in real life! One of the truly amazing things about The American University of Rome is the value added to classes merely by engaging with the diverse perspectives of faculty and students from across the globe – people with different histories, cultures, beliefs and experiences. In an era where we see a disturbing rise of nationalism and even political tribalism, learning how to navigate cultural, ethnic and religious fault lines is key.
From AUR’s experience, are the educational programmes changing? Which courses are students attending more in the meantime?
That’s an interesting question. Of course, higher education is continually evolving to reflect the demands of the workplace and of society at large. However, while AUR is a modern, forward-thinking institution, the core of what we do could be seen as somewhat traditional; Archaeology, Fine Arts, Communication, Business… Students still need to understand and apply basic principles of these subjects--that will never change. However, what does change, and this is true for AUR too, is how subjects are taught, how they are adapted to reflect a changing technological landscape and, above all, how they might be combined and applied to discover new solutions to problems. Archaeology (that most traditional of fields, you might think) is actually a great example with our Archaeology & Classics program now offering specialized, technologically-oriented classes on Ground Penetrating Radar, Forensic Archaeology, and Undersea Archaeology.
As you might also expect, certain fields become more popular depending on what is happening in the wider society – the politics, culture and economy of the world tend to influence what students want to learn (and often what their parents are willing to pay for them to learn…). Back in 2008, during the global financial crisis, humanities and arts enrollments dropped dramatically as students gravitated toward fields conventionally viewed as more employable. But too narrow a focus can often be a mistake because the economy is constantly generating new careers and a majority of companies and organizations look for people with creative problem-solving skills and certain character traits that are cultivated both in and outside of the classroom. It’s important to know that in the U.S., something like three fourths of college graduates currently employed are in fields unrelated to their undergraduate degree. This is because people discover new interests and avenues, but also because the modern economy creates and destroys jobs at an accelerating pace. How does one plan for such constant disruption? Surprisingly, by having students learn to apply different disciplines and kinds of skills to problems (like we do at AUR) and by developing an entrepreneurial attitude in order to position oneself for emerging opportunity.
And, which kind of subject or bachelor’s degree you think will be demanded by the labour market in the next future?
I actually think it’s a mistake for students to focus too exclusively on the “major” or specialty. Of course, if students want to be architects, engineers, nurses or teachers, they will need a special credential for those professions. But if they want to be entrepreneurs or go into some sort of start-up business, the undergraduate degree in business alone is not necessarily the best pathway. We know from the best labor researchers (CERI at Michigan State University, LinkedIn, NACE) that most employers want graduates that combine disciplines and skills. They are also looking for character traits such as creativity, resilience, communication skills, ability to work in teams, and the “holy grail”: initiative. Try as we might – and we do -- predicting the future of the job market is very difficult. That’s why it’s important for students to be adaptive and creative.
Any tip for someone dreaming to be a leader? Somebody who wants to make an excellent business career….What kind of abilities shall the next leaders have to be endowed with?
The skills of leadership are timeless. A leader must have empathy. S/he must be able to communicate effectively (and that means listening as much as talking or writing), and s/he must have respect for – and truly care about -- the wellbeing of the people s/he is leading. Beyond that, a good leader is a problem solver, someone who is willing to work alongside the people s/he is leading, someone who provides moral support and gives credit where credit is due. Not to contradict myself, but a leader must also have the ability to see the bigger picture, to anticipate trends that others don’t quite see and to make informed decisions and align resources accordingly. The difficult part is having the confidence of conviction to make hard decisions when others disagree.
We are all in search of a new normal after the lockdown. How has the pandemic affected your activities? Do you think we could leave the classroom and the in-presence lesson in favour of a digital driven university? Is that our next scenario?
The pandemic was an unexpected and highly unwelcome challenge for everyone and continues to be so. However, it has merely accelerated many trends already in place and from which we can learn. For The American University of Rome it has taught us that we are extremely resilient and adaptive in the face of crisis, that we have an amazing, innovative and dedicated team of professionals who practice what they preach and also that they are supremely dedicated to students and student learning. But I do not think that AUR’s value can ever derive from online instruction and mere “information transfer.” Our identity, values and deepest convictions are grounded in the power of a community of learners, face-to-face interaction with people from across the globe, and the kind of inspired learning that comes from associating directly with brilliant faculty members and diverse colleagues. These aspects of our type of higher education cannot be adequately taught online; and it’s for these reasons that we decided to do our best to stay open this fall.
In order to keep everyone as safe as possible, we are, of course, running a hybrid strategy of in-person and remote learning--and yes, our extra-curricular activities and travel study have been limited, but not halted. For the longer term, we will continue to chart our traditional liberal arts course because no matter how good technology gets, it cannot replace the experience of being in the classroom or out in the field with fellow students.
Finally…You are coming from USA. What kind of inheritance do you wish to bring to Italy? Which are your principles or guidelines that should be respected by your team of deans and managers?
As I said when you asked about leadership, those qualities are what I see in and expect from all my team: attention to the student experience, empathy, communication (especially the listening), respect, and data informed decision-making. While I am the figurehead for AUR, the university stands or falls on the quality of the team in place and the paths forward that we decide on together. So far, I have been overwhelmingly impressed. I am thrilled to be in Rome and at AUR.