Leonard Zwelling

In a small insert on the Opinion page of The Wall Street Journal on October 27, Thomas Bonnett describes the arc of his career. He went into the work force right out of high school. He began with blue collar jobs eventually switching to the white collar track where he applied the people skills he learned in his blue collar jobs. After twenty years in administration, he became an executive making more money than many of his heavily degreed colleagues.

Mr. Bonnett writes that such a career trajectory would be unlikely now. Even the most menial jobs in a large corporation require college and advanced degrees, but not necessarily true skills as he points out college seems not to teach writing or reliability.

There were many individuals who I wanted to promote in my career at MD Anderson who were held back by Human Resources because despite their proven track records and reliability they did not have the requisite university degree for a promotion.

I share Mr. Bonnett’s observations about the basic skills of the heavily degreed. Many cannot write a coherent English sentence. In my most recent job I had to teach all those around me, including medical doctors, how to write a memo that would actually get read. And as for dependability, I find the younger generation’s concerns for this most critical character trait sorely wanting.

All of this begs the question about what our universities are actually accomplishing besides being hot beds for political correctness and cancel culture.

If there are truly a set of skills that are required to do a job in a corporation, develop an objective test for those skills and use these tests as screening exams for all applicants, regardless of the number of degrees the applicants hold.

Perhaps it was my experience as a Baby Boomer and knowing so many of my friends’ parents who did not have degrees given their service in World War II having disrupted their lives and their need to make a living to feed their families once they returned from battle. I knew many, many very smart and accomplished people who did not have university degrees. And, given that I spent forty years in academic medicine, I surely knew some very well- educated people with few language skills and even fewer people skills. Heck, I include myself among the poorly taught in English. If it wasn’t for Kurt Kohn, my mentor at the National Institutes of Health, I am still not sure I could have written a few books let alone hundreds of articles and op-eds. Kurt taught me how to think, how to analyze and how to write. It was neither my college nor medical school training that led to this blog.

It was one of the most frustrating parts of being a vice president when someone who had performed brilliantly could not gain her just rewards simply for lack of a college diploma. That’s just wrong. And let’s face it, the people who gave us the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Iraq War were all highly educated. A college degree is overrated as Mr. Bonnett makes clear. Academic centers ought to loosen their requirements for corporate jobs if the individual has proven herself ready for more. It’s the right thing to do.

4 thoughts on “Credentials”

  1. Hi, Dr. Zwelling. I’m the person who wrote the WSJ piece you referenced, and I’m flattered you created this post about it. Coincidentally enough, I’m in the medical industry and agree wholeheartedly with you about English skills lacking in the medical community. That’s actually part of the reason I was offered my current role: My leaders recognize my English proficiency and believe my skills will help their otherwise-brilliant colleagues communicate their ideas more effectively.

    One minor correction, I am not an executive, but rather an executive-level assistant. I just don’t want anyone thinking I was claiming more accomplishments than I’ve achieved. 🙂

    Thanks again. I look forward to future posts.

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