Birmingham secret weapon on west side hilltop

Daniel Coleman
Daniel Coleman

Today’s guest columnist is Daniel Coleman.

After returning home full-time in 2017, I began to invest in local companies, where I got to know many of our city’s entrepreneurs.

I also started teaching finance at Birmingham-Southern College. At 53 years old, I realized that I was a little rusty. So I decided that it was time for me to learn to program in Python as well as learn actuarial math. In December 2018, I became the 16th president of Birmingham-Southern.

Having majored in English Literature, I believe that a liberal arts education is fundamental to creating critical thinkers and lifelong learners. I was excited to take the helm of the one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the South.

Between college and moving back to Birmingham, I spent three decades in what can be described as quantitative finance. I started my career trading options, then convertible bonds, and finished my career running one of the leading automated trading firms in the world.

In college, I read Chaucer and Faulkner; I wrote my senior thesis on John Crowe Ransom and the New Criticism. None of my courses prepared me directly for option modeling and risk management or signal development. That was OK, as much of that had not been invented in 1986. My liberal arts education taught me how to learn. And that is what mattered.

The liberal arts education of the 21st century will also teach students how to learn. What is different today from the 1980s are the tools available to procure knowledge. With cheap quantitative power accessible to everyone in the 1990s, cheap storage capabilities with the cloud in the 2000s, students can apply 18th Century math to pose and answer questions that were unanswerable a few decades ago.

Using tools and methodologies called “data science,” students can access, process, and draw inferences from digitized historical archives, government economic data, or almost anything else in the cloud from anywhere. Within the context of a liberal arts education, data science has become a central part of the process of critical thinking.

As I thought about ways we could integrate data science into our curriculum, I realized a student who majored in theater or medieval literature and minored in data science could get a job earning $70,000 a year in Birmingham or Huntsville in just about any field or industry. Our students would be able to study any course, develop critical thinking, and then apply it by using the data science tools they have learned. They would have a 21st Century liberal arts education. And very few colleges around the country could provide this.

Pondering the problems of Birmingham’s stagnant economic growth, I thought about data science at Birmingham-Southern from another perspective. According to the labor consulting firm, Burning Glass, Birmingham had nearly 550 openings in 2020. Programming skills combined with the ability to create probabilistic inferences by applying mathematics to data are the most sought-after skills at almost every start-up company in Birmingham I have seen. In fact, these are the exact skills we needed at the company I ran in New York.

As a college president, I was determined to create an educational experience that could leverage all the tools available to teach critical thinking. As a Birmingham native and self-nominated booster of this city, I realized that over a short period of time, Birmingham-Southern could significantly improve the quality of our workforce and impact the economic growth of the metro area.

Last year, we partnered with the Flatiron School of New York to create a data science program on our campus during the summer. The program is intense, with four classes taught over 12 weeks, meeting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Flatiron ran the same program for Harvard Business School during summer 2020. Students learn to program, apply statistics, create machine learning models, and access and manipulate large amounts of data. This program has 16 corporate partners, 14 in Birmingham and two in Huntsville. Our partners subsidize the program and offer internships to our students.

The BSC Accelerated Data Science program is open to non-BSC students. Last summer’s cohort of 36 students including 25% who were not from Birmingham-Southern.  While this summer’s cohort is slightly smaller, our goal is to grow this program to 100+ every summer with 50% of the student coming from BSC and the other 50% coming from other local colleges and employers.  Over time, we plan to explore other programs in related, technology intensive curriculum.

Over five years, we have the potential to put 1,000 people who are highly trained in data science and related fields into companies in our community. Perhaps we can fill 1,000 jobs whose pay may average $100,000 a year.  By meeting this need, we would not only create $100 million in payroll that did not previously exist; we would also enable the creation of multiples of pay roll in economic output by these employees.

By meeting this demand over a few years, we could directly add $400 million to our annual GDP. Birmingham-Southern could directly increase the size of our economy by more than .5%, enabling businesses to grow, stay in Birmingham, and create an ecosystem that will attract and retain great employees for years to come.

Our liberal art college of 1,000 students on a hilltop on the west side of Birmingham is doing this. We are small, but we are intently focused. This is our rifle shot to change Birmingham, and we are on target.

This is the 4th of a 5 part series by guest columnist Daniel Coleman on fundamental issues that make Birmingham different and why Birmingham is not competitive.

  1. Man wakes from 35 year cryogenic freeze to find a new Birmingham
  2. Birmingham’s Colonial economy
  3. Why Birmingham is not competitive

 Daniel Coleman, a Birmingham native with more than three decades of experience in finance, is Birmingham-Southern’s16th president. Coleman, who was CEO of the global financial services firm KCG Holdings until its 2017 sale, earned his B.A. in English at Yale University and his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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3 thoughts on “Birmingham secret weapon on west side hilltop”

  1. How fortunate Birmingham is to be able to have you as a part of it. The thinking is just th kind of more forward thinking any city can use to advance it, make it a better and more useful and appreciated place to live.

    I can truthfully say from experience that he is absolutely right about liberal education, (what I call ‘general education’ trying to be clearer about it) as the foundation of effective learning.

    I have been a professor of Architecture, observing the advancement from hand drawing to digital design and drawing including calculations of structure, climate, material strength, form proportions, plans for placement of activities and assignments for spaces. Effectively designing for the quality of, health, safety, and welfare of building users is included, and the list goes on.

    From ancient Rome three basic principles that must be strong for a building to be properly effective, ‘Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas,’ were set by Vitruvius and reported to Caesar , knowing that Caesar would be responsible for many important buildings. A student does not learn that without a knowledge of humanities, history, philosophy. It is very interesting to read what Vitruvius reported as being required for the education of an architecture. It consists of a list that seems endless, and having been active in architecture, I know that there is something different that requires research every day. To me that is actually what makes it an interesting profession.

    To have a thinker like President Coleman looking farther into the future with that background, and contributing his knowledge as the leader of Birmingham Southern College, is an incredible opportunity for the college, the city and beyond. If the city can be a magnet that strengthens and shines like the city on a hill, it can not be hid. Being seen for that and known more widely, it can not fail to reach people strongly far and wide. Add to that the benefits that Birmingham already has, then see the value as priceless!

    Thank you

    Roy F. Knight, FAIA Architect

    My education:
    Mountain Brook Elementary
    Indian Springs School
    Harvard College, B.A. Architectural sciences, general education. Four years
    Harvard Graduate School of Design, Master of Architecture, extended studies in City Planning Four years
    University of Pennsylvania, Post Masters work toward PHD, dissertation: The Basis of General Education in the Education of the Architect (research completed, due to family matters, dissertation not presented.)
    Career: Licensed Architect, Dean, and Professor of Architecture. Now practicing Architecture design consultant.
    National and international activity. Wherever I go I can not help but at east mention Birmingham, my home town.

    Apologies for the length of this commentary. To me it is extremely worthwhile to recognize.

  2. Thank you, Daniel, for the series of essays you’ve written for Comeback Town. Your leadership of BSC comes at a critical time, and your vision for the future of the college is exciting as you seek to combine the strength of a liberal arts education with cutting edge technology, a future that may lead the way to new local entreprenurial activities and thus
    to an invigorated City. As a graduate of BSC sixty years ago, I’ve always thought my liberal arts education made the difference in my life. Again, my thanks to you for your leadership at BSC and in our City.

  3. What an impressive vision!! My thanks and congratulations to you for what you are doing for our state.

    I am an old-time liberal arts person, but I think just as scientists today have to have be able to use digital tools to carry out their work, most effective leaders of the future will need to know at least enough of how these systems work and what they can do in order to be competent.

    My sincere best wishes to you.

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