You are here

Boston Globe interviews Dean Kate Davy on the role of arts and sciences at a business school

May 20, 2003

Bentley College dean Kate Davy wants to develop an environment where creativity and finance go hand in hand

By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff, 5/21/2003

WALTHAM -- She's a career academic, and she was the first person in her family to go to college. She's got the breezy cheer of a native Midwesterner and the bold glasses and spiked hair of an urbanite. She's a theater critic who has written extensively about the avant-garde -- and she idolizes George Burns.

Contradiction, in short, is nothing new for Kate Davy.

Even so, to find an expert on experimental theater groups from Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater to the Five Lesbian Brothers working in the administration of a Waltham business college is, well, surprising. Nevertheless, Davy has just finished her first academic year as dean of arts and sciences at Bentley College. And, unlikely as it may seem, she says the pragmatic atmosphere of a business school is an ideal incubator for her dream of revitalizing the arts -- specifically, liberal arts education in the United States.

'The vast majority of students in this country are focused on the professions,' says Davy, a fact she insists is as true for aspiring artists as it is for business majors. 'The difference between them is, business students want to make money, and fine arts students want to be famous.'

For both groups, though, Davy wants to instill the notion that the liberal arts are not a means to an end but a whole way of thinking about and looking at the world. And if that sounds contrary to the modern profile of a history, English, or biology major, Davy argues, academics have no one to blame but themselves.

'It used to be that higher education -- its purpose was to educate citizens,' Davy, 54, says over lunch recently. But current surveys of US professors indicate that 'faculty identify most with their disciplines,' not with the larger institution or, even more broadly, with the goal of educating students about the wider world. As a result, she says, 'We overproduced these clones of ourselves' -- English professors molding future English professors and biology researchers training more researchers. Instead, Davy argues, 'maybe we ought to be working in service to citizenship. We need to be connecting the dots.'

That thinking, she says, has landed her at Bentley. 'It's more like reality than much of academia,' Davy says. 'Because we're a business college, we could do something different here -- because we're not defending the purity of the discipline.'

The change Davy has in mind is nothing less than placing liberal arts at the center of a business education. At a retreat last fall, she says, when she asked her colleagues to define the arts and sciences, they responded: 'the foundation of a business education.'

'I said, `You dream so small! You define it as a foundation, but we've been asked to be players,' ' Davy recalls, to help shape the way a student looks at everything, not just a novel or a painting. By putting arts and sciences in the thick of things, Davy says, the Bentley administration is telling students, 'Yeah, you might be a businessperson or you might be in a leadership role, running a big city like New York,' where, as she points out, the current mayor is a business executive. 'The more creative you are, the more sophisticated you are as an intellectual, the better able you are to rise to the occasion.'

Not the obvious choice

Still, it's not as though the Bentley faculty was expecting this turn of events. Just the other day, Davy says, an associate dean recalled her reaction when Davy's name surfaced in the search for a new dean. 'When she heard I was in the finalists, she said, `Theater? Somebody in theater?' Davy says. 'The most surprising thing Bentley did was hire me.'

English professor Linda McJannet, who directs the honors program and chaired the search committee, says Davy's ability to bridge her arts background and the Bentley curriculum put her ahead of the field. 'She definitely impressed people when she came,' McJannet says. 'People just found her very energizing and receptive and a good listener.'

Still, Davy faces some obstacles, largely in getting people to change the way they think. If she talks about 'critical thinking' as a key part of what the liberal arts can teach a student, some faculty members might say, 'Oh, we'll offer a course in critical thinking.' No, Davy says. Students 'have to practice critical thinking -- across disciplines and over time.'

Just how Bentley will encourage the idea is still evolving -- with a lot of discussion among faculty members. And Davy, says one professor who's made a few proposals for changing things, has been gratifyingly receptive.'

She didn't come in with a particular agenda,' says assistant history professor Cyrus Veeser. 'She was quite open to what the liberal arts faculty and the business faculty thought would be reasonable.' That openness has been particularly helpful, Veeser says, at a moment of 'pretty rapid change' at Bentley. Davy's position is a new one, part of a restructuring that also brought a new dean of business to the school.

As for specific ideas about the liberal arts program, Davy says, maybe the school could offer a joint major in business and liberal studies -- a degree program that proudly declares its eclecticism, that encourages students to use interdisciplinary thinking. She notes that other colleges and universities are developing master's degree programs in liberal studies, as a way of meeting the needs of students whose undergraduate educations were so specialized they never studied the liberal arts.

Or, as Davy forcefully puts it, 'They didn't miss the liberal arts. The liberal arts missed them.' By not advocating for a broad-based approach, she believes, liberal-arts professors have failed to show students how the arts can make a difference in their lives. And that's what she wants to do at Bentley.

Room for the arts

Her plans, however, do not include constructing a giant performing arts center; metropolitan Boston, she says, has enough theaters, galleries, and performance spaces that if Bentley students need them, she'll build partnerships with organizations that have them. In fact, she recently met with architects to discuss how Bentley could make room for the arts without building anything.

'I've been thinking about the way artists find nooks and crannies in which to work and started exploring every attic on campus,' Davy wrote in an e-mail. She found three buildings with 'attic spaces to die for, from an artist's point of view.' Using those spaces to teach visual and performing arts not only would solve the space problem but also, she wrote, 'strikes me as befitting what we hope to accomplish in the arts for students at Bentley.'

Finding solutions, Davy says, is what she loves about being a dean -- and she sees no contradiction in loving both art and administration. 'Problem solving is creative,' she says. 'It feeds my soul in the same way that the arts do.'

And it's how she's spent her career, in a succession of colleges from Milwaukee to California and, most recently, at Adelphi University in New York. Not bad for someone who says she had 'terrible' grades in her Minneapolis high school and 'SAT scores in the toilet.' When she graduated from high school, Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, 'took me on academic probation,' Davy says. 'It changed my life.'

Even then, she knew she loved theater -- though she had never been to a play. Growing up in a working-class family in the 1950s, she had fallen in love with theater by seeing it on TV. Her family members, she said, eagerly clipped articles for her about the construction of the Guthrie Theater. But even though it went up right near their house and they knew of her interest, she says, 'it never occurred to us to buy a ticket.' After she'd gone to college, she went back home and took her parents to see 'The House of Atreus' at the Guthrie, 'and it blew them away.'

That's why she believes so strongly in the power of art: because she's felt it in her own life. 'It made such a huge difference that it's just never occurred to me to do anything else. It's the source of meaning for me,' Davy says. 'And I'm so depressed and demoralized by the devaluing of it nationally.'

The desire to spread that understanding keeps her going -- and has kept her career moving toward unexpected terrain.

'Before I retire, I want to feel like what I found most valuable has a future,' Davy says. And she wants to see the power of critical thinking that the liberal arts can teach become a basic part of every citizen's way of looking at the world. It's not just about art, she says; it's about how we live together as a society.

'When I watched the discourse after 9/11,' Davy says, 'I thought, `We are not doing something right.' I don't care what people think, but I want them to think.'

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 5/21/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit

Type: Latest Headlines