How My SXSW All-Access Pass is Like the Liberal Arts

Very few college presidents find themselves at the corner of Congress and 4th Avenue in downtown Austin, navigating the eclectic sounds—and personalities—of South by Southwest. Yet there I was, among tens of thousands of restless and creative souls, all walking around talking about the Next. Big Thing.

I’ve often paired the entrepreneurial ethos to modern liberal arts. And let’s be frank: there is nowhere else on the planet as aspiringly innovative as Austin during those ten days in March. What a wonderfully diverse collection of folks who are dedicated to risk and change, all under the guise of pop culture and technological advancement.

This was my first SXSW experience, and a platinum badge afforded me the envious luxury of taking in all music, film and interactive venues. (I figure opportunities like this don’t come around too often.) So for a few days, I indulged all of my interests spanning the Wu-Tang Clan, Stubb’s BBQ and athletic geneticism. I wore countless goggles at the augmented reality and virtual reality expo. And I reflected on how this incredible experience can be translated into my work as a president of a small liberal arts college.

Truth be told, the liberal arts are very much like the all-access badge I wore while in Austin. They open unlikely doors and they pair seemingly disparate interests. They take emerging themes in policy, technology, ethics and culture, and find a commonality that threads them loosely together. They bring together those with exceptionally dissimilar backgrounds, not to homogenize their beliefs, but rather to actually give permission to be inspired by differences. And the liberal arts can’t afford to operate in a world of impermeable silos. It’s the cross-pollination of people and ideas that allows positive change to happen.

That’s the incredible benefit of an event like SXSW—as well as the rewards of a liberal arts education. And I don’t find it mildly ironic that it took a few minutes of augmented reality to help me realize that.

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