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How Important Is College For A Governor?

I am a pretty big proponent of college. My wife and I went to college. One of our daughters has already graduated, and the other is a student now. At Palisades Hudson, when we have full-time job openings, we consider only college graduates.

But I don’t think college is necessary for all people. Or even for all governors.

Some critics of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker disagree.

The governor, who has been in the national spotlight as a result of his controversial effort to limit public employee union bargaining powers, attended Marquette University for four years, but did not earn enough credits to graduate before he left to take a job with the American Red Cross. According to his campaign, he had a grade-point-average of 2.59, or about a C+.

Walker’s degree status is unusual for a governor, but not unprecedented. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and the recently replaced governor of Connecticut, Jodi Rell, also lack college degrees. For whatever it’s worth, all are — like Walker — Republicans. Then again, so am I, sort of, sometimes.

Walker’s education came up during his gubernatorial campaign, but apparently it was not a major problem for voters at the time. Walker’s Democratic rival, Tom Barrett, graduated in the top 20 percent of his class from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to get a law degree, also from UW-Madison, graduating cum laude. Despite this educational disparity, Walker won the election with 52 percent of the vote.

Now, however, opponents outraged by Walker’s budget- and union-slashing are using his scholastic record to discredit his decisions. They have cited his failure to graduate as evidence that he ascribes little value to education and therefore cannot appreciate the effects his cuts would have. “I know that Walker doesn’t value education because he couldn’t be bothered to earn a degree,” one writer posted on a blog associated with the local news and opinion site ExpressMilwaukee.com.

Yet when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to support public schools in Newark, N.J., nobody argued that, as a college dropout, Zuckerburg could not possibly know or care enough about education to get involved in the issue. Zuckerberg famously left Harvard to build the business which, launched from his dorm room, soon reached nearly every other dorm room in the country, and eventually made its way into many adults’ apartments and houses as well.

A generation earlier, Bill Gates Jr. also left Harvard’s lecture halls behind to pursue his interests in computing. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has not only devoted huge sums of money to educational improvement, but has become an important figure in educational research and reform, championing a small classroom model.

Many lower-profile individuals have also gone on to pursue highly successful careers without college degrees. Success in many fields requires critical thinking, diligence, and the ability to pick up new skills. College can foster these traits, but it is not the only way to get them.

In most cases, a degree and the specific knowledge it represents are less important than the general intellectual abilities college graduates are presumed to possess. At Palisades Hudson, for example, we hire college graduates even for administrative positions, not because we need people to produce papers on Ulysses or to conduct lab experiments, but because we want to have thoughtful, hardworking employees who are able and eager to learn new skills. This allows us to get the most out of a relatively small staff by creating a system in which the person who answers the phones can also provide research support and the person who orders supplies can also maintain our computer network. Since we cannot interview every person who sends in a resume, scanning the “Education” section offers us a quick way to see who is most likely to be able to fit into this model.

Performing well in a leadership role is often less about knowledge or raw analytical ability than about understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Zuckerberg and Gates both left college because they tended to be the smartest people in the room, even when the room was the faculty lounge. Walker may never have been the smartest person in the room at Marquette, but a leader does not have to be. A leader only needs to be able to assemble a room full of the smartest people around and then listen to what they have to say.

When Wisconsin voters were sizing up candidates in the gubernatorial election, it might have made sense for them to look at degree status as a crude stand-in for critical thinking abilities. Now, however, anyone who is interested in seeing how well-suited Walker is for the position of governor can learn far more by examining his actual performance. What he did or did not do in college is not relevant; what he does now that he holds the governor’s office is.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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