by Nikolai Wise ‘21
When thinking about jobs that follow a liberal arts education, most do not think of a career as a cop. But former State Bureau of Investigation Agent and UNC Asheville alumnus David Barnes strongly believes in the value of a liberal arts education. Barnes’ journey has taken him from UNC Asheville to his career in law enforcement and back again, with his liberal arts background guiding the way.
Barnes first attended UNC Asheville even before it was UNC Asheville–he graduated from what is now Asheville High School in the spring of 1967, and the following fall he enrolled into Asheville-Biltmore College, the predecessor of UNC Asheville.
“I did that because my family did not have a lot of money, and my father checked into AB College and saw that it had a good reputation,” said Barnes.
During his time at Asheville-Biltmore College, the college joined the UNC system as UNC Asheville. He graduated from UNC Asheville with a degree in political science and became an Asheville police officer in 1971. In just two years after becoming a police officer, Barnes left the Asheville Police Department and became a North Carolina SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) agent. Barnes says that many of the agents at the time held Bachelor of Science degrees, but he feels that his liberal arts background helped him greatly.
“A liberal arts degree provides a broader spectrum of learning possibilities, because of that early on I was able to learn the job quickly, because I was used to doing jobs that were diversified,” said Barnes. “I think it helped with being able to communicate early on and it helped me get the job.”
Barnes, while still an SBI agent, returned to UNC Asheville in 1987 to begin the university’s Masters of Liberal Arts program.
“When I came to the MLA program originally I had problems communicating outside law enforcement,” said Barnes. “I could interview witnesses, talk to suspects, do undercover and pal around with other cops. I just couldn’t talk to regular people.”
Barnes worked hard in the MLA program, but in an unfortunate turn of events that every students dreads, in his senior year his thesis was lost in a computer failure. Around this same time, his wife was considering going back to university to earn her master’s degree. Barnes agreed that he would leave his graduate program so that she could begin hers, but she made him promise to go back to school one day. In 2016, Barnes’s wife called in his promise.
By then, though, Barnes had doubts. The program has changed since the 1980s and is now a Masters of Liberal Arts and Sciences program.
“I was thinking to myself, they’re not going to let me back in after so much time has passed,” he said.
But the program did accept Barnes back and gave him credit for his previous classes. Still, Barnes was slightly anxious about coming back.
“The first class I took, I was scared to death when I signed up, because I didn’t know what they [the students] would think about me as a cop… and I didn’t know if I could do the work,” said Barnes.
Barnes says he’s found great acceptance by his fellow students, however, and is enjoying his courses.
“I’m learning from these students that I’m in class with, it’s incredible,” he said, “The students and instructors in the MLA program didn’t care what I did to earn money. They just expected me to be like everybody else in the program: participate, learn, share the learning.”
Barnes is enjoying his classes and is concentrating on creative writing with Tommy Hays, an acclaimed local author and lecturer in the MLAS program.
“Writing short stories has long been an interest,” said Barnes. “I was very, very surprised on how complicated and difficult it is to write like this.”
Barnes has just two more courses to finish before he’ll graduate from UNC Asheville again, finally achieving the master’s degree he set out to earn years ago.
“To me, going back to school, especially now, gives me a good feeling that I’m actually doing something for myself,” Barnes said. “My brain’s working and I’m learning things.”