From ‘Recovering Lawyer’ to University President: Q and A with Gloria Larson

Bentley University President Gloria Larson
Bentley University President Gloria Larson

Bentley University President Gloria Cordes Larson has learned during a diverse career in law, government, business and higher education that real change happens when people shake up the status quo. Her forthcoming book, PreparedU: How Innovative Colleges Drive Student Success, calls for changing the traditional higher education approach to a hybrid model that combines business education with the arts and sciences to prepare graduates for the 21st century economy.

Q: You often joke about being a “recovering lawyer.” What got you interested in higher education?

Larson: When I was a partner at the law firm Foley Hoag, I recruited prospective summer associates. It was eye-opening because I met students with a much different view of the world and their place in it than my generation had. Open-mindedness and ideals combined with an entrepreneurial spirit – those were the ways to thrive in the globalized world that the millennial generation had inherited.

At the time I was reading Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, and the forces he identified to reshape the world—connectivity, vast information and collaboration—seemed immediately relevant to the students I was recruiting. The world Friedman described was so different from the stable, predictable world that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers had grown up in. Millennials were growing up in a world of constant change but the education system itself wasn’t keeping up.

I realized with growing concern that the problem was embedded in the way students prepared for their careers. A year later, I set aside my law practice to become president of Bentley College (now Bentley University).

Q: Your book calls for a new approach to education. Why write this book now?

Larson: I’ve seen innovation in education in colleges large and small – it’s by no means just the big universities. We need to learn from them to identify what’s working in higher education – and sometimes, what isn’t – to create an education system that prepares young people to compete effectively in a global economy. That’s why I wrote this book.

We’re in a time of national debate about every component of higher education, from education costs and student debt, to the influence—for better or worse—of college rankings, to the comparative value of “top” versus “middle-tier” universities. We’re in a time, right now, when politicians and policymakers are debating wider access to higher education and how that will affect bigger issues like income inequality, poverty and the future of work. This is a timely conversation we’re having.

Q: What are the main themes of the book?

Larson: There is no single prescription for curing what ails higher education today, but a set of principles is emerging that’s working for students at many different colleges. I felt it important to share the lessons I’ve learned at Bentley but also from front-line educators at other universities, too. I’ll also share what I’ve learned from students who are putting their futures on the line as they practice a combination of classroom and hands-on learning. And I’ll describe the successes we’ve experienced with the fusion of liberal arts “right-brain thinking” and business “left-brain thinking.” Most importantly, this book explains the idea that how you go to college is often more important than where you go to college. “How” is the primary difference between a successful and unsuccessful experience, and it’s critical for students to consider this approach as they begin their college careers.

In business education, we hear every day from the company recruiters and executives who want graduates who are genuinely prepared to jump in and thrive in today’s innovation economy. Their stories are part of this book, too.

Gloria Cordes Larson is the president of Bentley University and the author of PreparedU: How Innovative Colleges Drive Student Success.

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