Sen. Peter Gosselin Fitzgerald was in the U.S. Senate from 1998 to 2004, choosing to return to private life rather than run for a second term. Since then he has come back to the family business of banking, founding and heading the Chain Bridge Bank in the Washington DC area (www.chainbridgebank.com). With a varied career and educational background, Sen. Fitzgerald brings a wealth of practical and academic experience to this interview that readers of SuperScholar will find useful and enjoy.
Senator Fitzgerald, before embarking on a career in law, politics, and banking, you were a classics scholar, having studied Latin and Greek in high school, doing a classics major at Dartmouth, and even doing a Rotary scholarship in Thessalonica, Greece. Classics seems so far removed from the practical world in which you have been most active. But is it really? How has your education in the classics helped you in your career?
Sure. Studying the classics helped improve my language and communications skills and those skills were, of course, essential to my career in law and politics. Moreover, by studying the classical languages I learned a lot about ancient history which, like more recent history, is primarily about government and politics.
At a basic level, the classics improve a student’s vocabulary and grammar. At a more advanced level, practice translating Latin and Greek into English gives a student more facility in English expression. While it’s obvious that language and communications skills are essential for a career in law or government, I would go further and argue that communication skills are important in all walks of life. Even if you’re an engineer, a doctor or an accountant – or a banker, as I am now – the ability to communicate with colleagues, clients or patients is essential.
You recently returned to your alma mater, Dartmouth College, one of the very finest liberal arts schools in America. Since you graduated from there in 1982, how have you seen education at such elite schools change? What advice would you give to students thinking of applying to such schools? How can students today get the most out of a Dartmouth education?
The curricula at most colleges haven’t changed much since I graduated, but today’s students are much brighter than those of my generation. The applicant pools to the better colleges are much larger today than they used to be and yet the colleges themselves haven’t expanded the number of available openings. As a result, the student bodies at most top tier colleges are more select than they’ve ever been. The rise in average grades and test scores at the top colleges bears out this conclusion.
Another factor at work is that more international students are applying to U.S. colleges than ever before. So not only are there more domestic applicants to colleges every year, but there are more students applying from abroad. Students applying to college today are literally competing with other students from around that world. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
The main advice I would give to a student applying to college today is to demonstrate a passion for a particular extracurricular activity – be it a sport, a musical instrument, an art or student government or whatever – that sets him or her apart from the typical applicant who simply has high grades and high test scores. The top tier colleges are inundated with applicants who have high grades and high test scores. The applicants who stand out are those who, in addition to being good students, can contribute a particular talent that the college needs, such as playing on a team, writing for the college newspaper or singing in the choir.
Students will get out of college what they put into it. The U.S. has the best colleges and universities in the world. The trick is to take full advantage of the opportunities offered in college. Students who work hard and make good decisions about how to spend their time will get the most out of their college educations.
That being said, students should remember that College is not just about academics and extra-curricular activities. College is a transitional phase in life during which students should be learning how to live outside the home and make decisions on their own. They should also be learning how to socialize and interact with others and they should have fun in so doing. What students learn outside the classroom in College may be every bit as important as what they learn inside.
In the mid 1980s you studied law at the University of Michigan, which in the field of law is in the same league as Yale, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. Your family has a long history in banking. What prompted you to go into law? How useful was your education in law when you were a U.S. Senator? It seems that many Washington politicians are attorneys. Would you like to see a greater diversity of educational backgrounds among Washington politicians?
All three of my brothers are bankers, as was my father. While I was in high school and college, I worked in the family banking business over the holidays and during the summers. But my passion as a young man was politics and I primarily read political histories and loved following current events. By the time I was in college it was clear to me that law would be strong preparation for a career in public service.
For Senators or Congressman, or anyone serving in a state legislature, a background in the law – all other things being equal – is a real advantage. The primary function of a legislative body is to write the laws. In terms of understanding the bills, or proposed laws, that are being debated and voted on, a legislator who is trained as a lawyer has a big advantage over a legislator who is not trained as a lawyer. Lawyers also have an edge when it comes to getting elected to public office: their training in oral and written advocacy puts them in a superior position to make their case to the voters. To me, it isn’t all that surprising that a majority of 100 Senators in U.S. Senate are usually lawyers.
But obviously, just because lawyers may be more apt to get elected to office than non-lawyers certainly doesn’t mean that the public is better off with so many lawyers in Congress and the state legislatures. It’s not. As a practical matter, we need more doctors, accountants, businessmen, farmers, teachers, nurses, fireman, military veterans and other professionals to serve in elected office. When I was in the Senate, I always listened carefully to the thoughts of John McCain when it came to military affairs, or of Bill Frist, who had been a renowned heart surgeon, when it came to discussing health care, or of Chuck Grassley, a farmer, when it came to discussing agriculture. Non-lawyer legislators who have an expertise in a particular field often carry great weight and are very effective on issues pertaining to their fields.
Of the top 50 universities in the world, 36 are in the United States. American higher education is still the best in the world. Yet pre-college public education in the United States is a very mixed bag, with some inner city schools in complete disarray and some magnet schools offering incredibly rigorous courses of study. What do you see as the future of American education? Will America continue to lead the way?
I think that American colleges and universities will continue to lead the way. Part of the reason our higher education system is so good is that it operates on free market principles: students can attend whatever college they would like and can get into. As a result, the colleges compete fiercely amongst themselves and colleges that offer a good education are rewarded with more applicants and students while colleges that don’t offer a good education suffer market consequences.
On the other hand, our K-12 educational system is organized in a less than optimal way. By and large, students have no choice as to what public grade school or high school they will attend. Instead, for the most part, students must attend the public school closest to their home. The only way parents can send their children to a different public school is by moving to a different city or town. This arrangement gives public schools a semi-guaranteed clientele. It means that even a school that does a poor job educating students will still have clients.
I think we could improve our public elementary and high schools by giving parents more choice as to where to send their children to school. The introduction of school choice would improve the balance of incentives that schools face. It would reward the better schools with higher enrollments while penalizing the under-performing schools with smaller enrollments.
Now that you have returned to the family tradition of banking, how do you see your formal education helping (or failing to help) you in banking? Even though your father gave you free rein at Dartmouth in choice of major and courses, he did insist on your taking an accounting class, thinking that it would help you regardless of what you decided to do with your life. Would you say that everyone should take an accounting class? Are there some practical courses that everyone should take in college?
Actually I didn’t take accounting until law school. At Michigan Law they had a course called “Accounting for Lawyers” which was taught by a Business School professor. My banker father absolutely insisted that I take that course and I’m glad he did. It was one of the most important courses I ever took.
Everyone should study accounting at some point in life. If you don’t have some familiarity with accounting, not only could you have a difficult time managing your household finances, but you could even struggle to fill out a personal financial statement when applying for a loan. And trust me – everyone going to apply for a loan at some point in life.
In addition to accounting, many of the courses I took in law school have directly helped me in my career as a banker. That’s because there’s a lot of law in banking and a lot of banking in the law. I took courses in the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs how payments are collected and how creditors obtain and perfect liens on various types of collateral. I also took courses in property law, securities, corporate finance, the federal income tax, trusts and estates, and so forth. A legal education comes in handy for bankers as well as for Senators. I’m probably one of the few bankers in the country who can write loan documents from scratch.
The only course I took in college that had any bearing on what I’m now doing was a “Money and Banking” class taught by an economics professor. It was a great course which taught me how money is created through the expansion of credit and how, conversely, money is destroyed by the contraction of credit. That course is particularly relevant today since we have just been through the most serious economic contraction since the Great Depression and the Federal Reserve is trying desperately to boost the economy by increasing the flow of credit.
College is often seen as a stepping stone to a successful career. In fact, you’ve had several successful careers (plural!) since leaving college – as an attorney, holder of public office, and banker. But you also have a family and understand that career success is not identical with happiness. What advice would you offer to students as they pursue not only career success but also a well-rounded life?
Bright young students are often very competitive. In fact, it’s easy for some students to become excessively driven and too caught up in competing with their peers. My advice is to always keep things in perspective. We are only on this earth for a very short time. Live a balanced life. Maintain your ambitions, but never allow them to overcome you and never allow them to cause you to compromise your principles. Remember, at the end of the day, few things in life are as important as your own health and your relationships with your family and friends. Don’t neglect them.