The art of thinking clearly and living well
By Clint Talbott
Dexter Williams enjoys a successful career in the banking sector, where one might not expect to find a champion of liberal-arts education. That expectation would reflect a stereotype, which a discussion with Williams quickly shatters.
Williams, who got his master’s of fine arts from the University of Colorado in 1984, serves as a senior vice president at a large Los Angeles based investment management firm. He works on the fixed-income side of the financial sector, which he calls “ground zero” in the explosive debate about the economic meltdown.
It’s a “very misunderstood world,” he says, one “prone to hyperbole by the press.” Nonetheless Williams does not excuse some behavior of the financial sector. He says many tried to financially engineer returns rather than to productively “associate shareholder capital with good businesses and entities.” In some cases, he says, the motivation was “how can I manipulate this market …and my bonus… just by gaming the system?”
Still, he says, there’s been a lot of “populist scapegoating” of the investment and banking industry. He likens such criticism to an argument by the philosopher Immanuel Kant adding “It’s classic; we want to blame someone else for something in which we’re all culpable.”
“I just wonder if we’d had more people (in the financial sector) who studied Plato and Socrates instead of (Harry) Markowitz and Bill Sharpe, we’d be in a better place.” Markowitz, known for his work in modern portfolio theory, shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Economics with Sharpe.
Williams argues that good business practices depend on good critical-thinking skills. Mentioning the philosopher Edmund Burke in one sentence and credit default swaps in the next, Williams says business leaders must understand that the quickest route from point A to point B may not be the best one.
“If the incentives are aligned in such a way to produce a certain behavior, they will produce that behavior,” Williams says. “I don’t think people thought through the incentives” in the financial sector.
If he were hiring a new financial-services employee, Williams adds, “I would be biased toward someone with a liberal-arts degree.” He mentions a colleague who studied poetry and creative writing as an undergrad, then got his master’s of business administration from the Wharton School. Williams says the poet is a stellar colleague in large part because of his “non-traditional” background. “That’s what liberal arts does. It gives you a greater perspective on the world.”
So how did a leader of the financial industry become a champion of liberal-arts education?
As an undergraduate student at the University of California at Irvine in the 1970s, Williams says he gravitated more toward surfing than studying and was thus “struggling.” He enrolled in an art-history course that happened to have been taught by Philip Leider, a founding editor of ArtForum and a key figure in the development of contemporary art theory.
“It was phenomenal,” Wiliams said. “It was unbelievable.” The class studied artists chronologically through Goya, sometimes called the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. Later at UC-Irvine, Williams earned a degree in social ecology. But when he went back to school, art was “what I wanted to do.”
Williams moved to Colorado and enrolled in CU’s master of fine arts program in 1978, studying art history. He completed his comprehensive exams in 1980 and his thesis in 1984. (He focused on the photographer Robert Frank and the Beat Generation.) In between, he pursued his master’s of business administration from the University of Denver.
Business became his career. Art remained his passion.
“Of all the classes, I’d give up everything but the art-history degree. It was the most important in terms of thinking about the world, learning how to think,” Williams says. Critical thinking, which is at the core of the liberal-arts curriculum, is “a skill you use every day.”
Williams pairs those words with action. He’s made generous contributions to the Visual Arts Complex (still being built) and the art-history department. They are good causes, he says.
“Education deserves support, and I’m lucky enough to be able to do it financially, Williams says. In supporting the art-history department, Williams hopes to provide students “who tend to be focused on learning a vocation” the chance to learn things “that are about the world and not about oneself.”
Williams emphasizes that he is not criticizing business schools. But, he says, exposing oneself only to a business curriculum is “limiting in terms of your exposure to why things are instead of how things are.”
“If you’re thinking about going to college and thinking about ‘how much money I can make when I get out,’ go to a trade school,” Williams urges, adding: “Don’t waste the opportunity to learn about so many other parts of the world … Learn about things that are important for the soul.”
“Liberal arts is something you pursue just to improve yourself and therefore to improve your interactions with the world. It’s not something you do to get rich.”
He concludes: “I support CU because I think it’s a great institution. Like every institution, it struggles to meet its mission financially. I think it’s very important for alumni to support it.”
For more information or to support the CU Department of Art and Art History, please contact Micah Abram, director of development, CU Foundation, at 303-541-1465, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.