Eureka! A Quick Look at an Unexpected Liberal Arts Benefactor

Here is my pledge to you, dear IP reader. From now on, whenever I post on a multi-million dollar liberal arts give, I will double my effort to accentuate the career background of the donor in question.

The reason for this is simple. Opponents of liberal arts have a tendency to say things like, "What good is a degree in Greek philosophy in today's economy? I hope you make a mean macchiato!" And while I can't certainly can't argue with the math—indeed, far too many liberal arts students do end up with low-paying lows and crippling student debt—the argument sidesteps the fact that abilities associated with the liberal arts are, in fact, essential to success in the 21st century. In an era of rapid technological and economic change, the ability to think critically, generate creative ideas, and solve problems is arguably far more important than mastering some specific set of pre-professional skills that are likely to become dated down the road. 

Which brings me to a $20 million gift to support faculty and graduate student endowments in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Was the liberal arts-loving donor, say, a fan of Elizabethan poets who inherited a family fortune? Or perhaps a beret-wearing poet who just happened to win the Powerball? Or a former English major who made his fortune practicing law? 

Nope on all three counts. It was an oil guy.

Fort Worth oil and gas investor Bobby Patton Jr. and his wife, Sherri, cut the check. And why did they do it? Simple. "After I left UT I realized just how important liberal arts were to my life. They taught me how to learn and how to keep on learning," Patton said. "I like to call this an investment rather than a gift."

The gift will help the school recruit top faculty and graduate students while bolstering experiential learning offerings at the college, which offers more than 50 majors in 22 academic departments and in more than 30 centers, institutes, and programs. 

Patton was a student of the school's Plan II program—a four-year interdisciplinary arts and science honors major in the College of Liberal Arts—in the early 1980s. A member of the UT College of Liberal Arts Advisory Council, Patton principally operates oil and gas properties in Texas and Kansas and has additional investments in many other sectors, including ranching and insurance. A partner of Guggenheim Baseball Management, he became part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012. He also serves on the board of Security Benefit Corporation and also serves as the tournament chairman of the Crowne Plaza Invitational PGA Tour event at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. 

Add it all up, and Patton doesn't immediately fit the mold of a prototypical liberal arts proponent—and that shouldn't come as a huge surprise. The paradigm seems to be shifting. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his new book In Defense of a Liberal Education, tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have touted the value of the liberal arts skillset in the digital workplace. Turns out graduates needn't be condemned to a lifetime of barista purgatory. Who knew?

What's more, the message seems to be sinking in across the donor class. Not coincidentally, recent posts in IP's higher ed space have looked at science-inclined donors merging the liberal arts with the traditional sciences and a professor-turned-pundit-turned-donor lauding the "life-changing" potential of civic engagement root in political science.

And now you can add "oil guy" to the list.