College leaders’ responsibilty to identify unrecognized talent (opinion)

Is there a more melancholy poem in the English language than Thomas Gray’s 1751 “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”? Wildly popular even before publication, Gray’s “Elegy” is spoken by a wanderer who notes the humble gravestones in a lonely village and wonders what undiscovered talents lived and died there, forever unknown to the world:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

So much of what we do in higher education is a matter of forestalling such tragedies — ensuring that future artists and leaders are not overlooked or undervalued because they live or work off the “traditional” path that guides young people to our doors. We strive to attract, nourish and retain students, faculty, staff and administrators. We seek qualities such as motivation, focus, drive, thoughtfulness and brilliance. In the current higher education employment crisis, with growing numbers of people considering leaving, I find myself especially keen to retain those with enthusiasm and spark.

The word “talent” used broadly doesn’t have a lot of currency in higher education, except as a modifier for a specific skill set, like “talented debater” or “talented violinist.” “Gifted” is the preferred word in the sciences. But as a dean at a top research university, I find that I am thinking about talent all the time, looking at the qualities that make a great department chair or program director (which have more to do with leadership than with academic discipline). I am constantly noting how an energetic and enthusiastic department administrator can increase student success — and wondering how to hire and promote for this — and looking closely at what characteristics indicate that an individual has something special and unique to contribute to a mission.

I was spurred to think more specifically about talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross’s new book Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World (St. Martin’s Press, 2022). Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University (and noted public intellectual), and Gross, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, argue that finding and nurturing talent is a pressing matter of social justice. “We have come to see the world’s inability to find and mobilize enough talent as one of the most significant failures of our time,” they proclaim.

Thomas Gray’s poem leapt to mind just here. For those of us who believe that discovering and nurturing talent is a foundational goal of higher education, taking lessons in how talent is conceived and perceived by successful entrepreneurs can offer new perspectives and perhaps paths that we in academe can communicate to our students.

“Talent search is a fundamentally optimism endeavor, based on the premise that there is always more value to be found in our world,” Cowen and Gross observe. Yet training and creative skill is necessary to recognize talent. And if there are talented people across the globe tragically mismatched to their jobs, the various measures of assessing large numbers of people — standard hiring tools like Meyers Briggs, the Caliber Profile, standardized test scores, civil service exams, or the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery — aren’t working to sufficiently or efficiently spot talent and suggest a better matched path. The authors suggest that good talent spotters might look for traits beyond those of the Five Factor theory (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness) and seek characteristics like stamina, self-improvement, sturdiness, generativeness, happiness, clutteredness (surrounded by items and books that might be useful), precocity, adhesiveness, and other out-of-the-box ideas. This is good advice.

Much of my scholarly work over the past quarter century has involved recovering and celebrating long-lost talent, primarily among women and men enslaved in the antebellum American South who somehow managed to nurture their creative spark and create a legacy that testifies to immense talent and resilience . Think Hannah Crafts, whose novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Composed in her head while suffering untold abuses under slavery for the first decades of her life, was written in freedom in the 1860s, lost for over a century and finally published in 2002. Think Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, a New York teacher who traveled South after the Civil War to teach newly emancipated children and who wrote lively letters about her experiences for several newspapers before perishing tragically young. I think also of Nat Turner, the bold leader of a bloody, failed 1833 North Carolina slave revolt, who mentions in passing while in prison waiting to be executed that, as a child, he would steal glimpses at free children’s school books and spend precious free time “in making experiments in casting different things in molds made of earth, in attempting to make paper, gunpowder, and many other experiments.”

Imagine a world in which Crafts’s, Highgate’s and Turner’s energies could have been better “matched” to a growing nation and nurtured accordingly. What would such a world have looked like? For Frederick Douglass, whose prodigious talents were spotted early by his enslavers and by the abolitionist community after his flight north, the paradigm worked, as it did for Aretha Franklin, as the authors of Talent notes, spotted early by the talent scout John Hammond.

But putting oneself out there to be spotted is not simple for many people. In the tech world, women, individuals with disabilities and certain underrepresented minorities are not always spotted by men for their entrepreneurial talents. There is a “fairly limited range of allowed women in professional settings,” the behavior Talent authors acknowledge. Women, for example, must navigate and display appropriate levels of charm, enthusiasm, and assertiveness when interviewing — presumably with men.

Standardized practices may now protect the vulnerable. (Older faculty remember infamous MLA interview horror stories of female candidates answering questions atop a hotel bed surrounded by male interviewers.) But historically viewed, there was rarely an “interview” for entrepreneurial women who had no choice but to venture out and prove themselves in the world. My mind turns to Maria Beasley, the prolific 19th-century inventor of barrel-making and life-raft technologies who just kept applying for and securing patents for her inventions. I think of Harriet Tubman, whose bravery, creativity, and exceptional physical stamina might not have been predicted in a sit-down office conversation.

As a scholar also of the emergence of civil service bureaucracies in the 19th century, I know that paperwork and highly regulated however systems were needed to level the playing field from inherited privilege to some semblance of merit-based talent identification, imperfect. Being judged on the merits might have helped the fictional George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1851. The young man is finally provoked to flee his enslavement when his owner punishes him for brazenly inventing something new. “What business had his slave to be marching round the country, inventing machines, and holding up his head among gentlemen?” Stowe’s point was that Harris’s talents could not be rewarded under a system that refuses to see some individuals as equally having super-talent potential. But the downside of bureaucratic processes that keep bigotries and bad intentions from rejecting candidates out of hand do not help hiring managers developing a talent for spotting talent.

Why is keeping an eye out for talent important? There may be no higher purpose for college and university leaders than raising the aspirations of potentially talented people who are undervaluing themselves. I agree with Cowen and Gross that being seen as talented is the antidote to the much-written-about crisis of confidence among the young (and perhaps the middle-aged too). “When you raise the upwards of an individual, in essence you are bending the curve of that person’s achievement for the rest of his or her life,” they declare. In my work as a dean, this goal is important not only in regard to students but also to staff who have sometimes had the most circuitous paths to a career in higher ed. Talent isn’t a matter of degrees and credentials, though these markers of stamina — which they are — are always helpful.

Talent is indeed a cluttered list that includes stamina, self-improvement, sturdiness, adhesiveness, and sometimes just a spark that makes a person stand out unexpectedly. I find myself in a new position noticing spark more than anything else. And so I am provoked to toss out shortcuts and spend time listening and seeking to discern a spark. I would urge everyone in a hiring position, inside or outside of higher ed, to think widely, beyond our own perspective. Such broadening is urgent to avoid tragic mismatching so that “heart[s] once pregnant with celestial fire” does not remain overlooked.

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