BUCKHANNON — During his senior year at West Virginia Wesleyan College, the Founder’s Day guest speaker took a business machines class through the business department.
“In it, we learned to operate the kind of adding machines and tabulating devices that were used by many businesses at the time,” John Taylor told the audience Friday at the convocation.
“I graduated in 1980,” he said. “IBM introduced the PC in 1981 and I never encountered one of those big clunky machines outside of that classroom. Amazingly, I spent my entire working career in industries that didn’t even exist on the day that I graduated. Each of the subsequent firms where I worked, didn’t exist on the day that I started at the previous firm.”
Taylor – who WVWC president Dr. Joel Thierstein earlier called a Renaissance man when introducing him – has held various roles in telecommunications, artificial intelligence and social media companies. He is now semi-retired and has served on the Wesleyan board of trustees since 2011.
It was his liberal arts education that enabled Taylor to adapt, he added.
“I consider myself very fortunate to have spent a large part of my career at a company called MCI,” he said. “We were an incredibly innovative communications company that literally changed the world.
“We constantly challenged everything that we did. We would rather obsolete ourselves than have technology or the marketplace do it for us. The marketplace is now challenging higher ed and it should,” he said.
“For example, the dirty little secret in higher education is that less than 50 percent of all college students graduate in six years. The four-year graduation rate is somewhere around 40 percent. Wesleyan enjoys one of the highest graduation rates in the state and that is good but we are not satisfied with that. In what other service is a 50 percent rate acceptable?”
“Our constituents are demanding more of us and they should. We can do better.
“We are lucky because here at Wesleyan we have some great people focused on this issue.”
“Across College Avenue, the world outside this beautiful campus is a very different place from what it once was and requires new ways of delivering on our core values.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that our liberal arts tradition is no longer relevant and needs to be abandoned. In fact, I’m saying just the opposite.
“Our type of education is in greater demand than ever. We must explore new ways to teach it.
“Borders went away but books didn’t. Blockbuster and Tower Records are done but entertainment isn’t. Sears is now a penny stock and is on its death watch but people are shopping more now than ever before. Even my beloved MCI is gone, a victim of its own success, acquired by Verizon and only now exists as a case study that is taught as part of the Harvard business school curriculum.”
It is now higher education’s turn to adapt, according to Taylor.
“As new technology arises, the demographic makeup of our student body changes and the needs of society continues to shift,” he said. “We will be constantly challenged to adapt the process through which we deliver the core values but the liberal arts education is more relevant today than ever. We can never lose sight of that.
As we navigate the journey that lies ahead, we must keep in mind that Wesleyan is not a collection of buildings on a tree filled campus. It is a living, breathing organism. It is us, students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, the Wesleyan community who must adapt and evolve. It falls on us, this community to be part of navigating the Wesleyan transformation.
“I am pleased to say that this process is already underway on this campus. True to our traditions, our college is challenging the status quo and mapping a path to the future. It will require our support.
“It requires more than just financial donations. It is giving of your talents, it is being an ambassador for the school amongst your friends and your neighbors and most of all it requires us to stay connected. Wesleyan will need the support of this community as it moves outside of its comfort zone.
“In order for our beloved college to capitalize on this exciting time, it will take the support of the entire Wesleyan community from the president to the groundskeeping staff. From the oldest alumni to the newest freshmen With all of us working together, the institution that we love will continue to be a bright light in learning for another 130 years.”