Provost Coleman Gives Fall Update to Campus

Welcome back to the University of Arkansas and to my annual Fall update!

Once again, the fall semester's wave of students and faculty has swept into the hills of Northwest Arkansas, stirring the campus out of summer's semi-hibernation and leaving us awash in the swirling waters of an academic sea. Now metaphorical vernal pool ecosystems of students, faculty and staff can be found across campus, teeming with academic energy — an energy so intense, that some may be starting to feel exhausted after only five weeks. This is all par for the course for this spectacular annual ritual.

In this update, I want to reflect on our ethereal purpose as the flagship, land grant institution for Arkansas, to include recent notable accomplishments, the inevitability of change in higher education and how we can respond to such changes. Reflecting on how the university's purpose has evolved since our beginnings and where we need to go in the future seems particularly appropriate as we approach the University of Arkansas' sesquicentennial. This important theme was the focus of the Chancellor's State of the University Address yesterday.

From increasing graduation and retention rates to delivering education and skills while striving to be a top-caliber research institution that is a catalyst and entrepreneurial resource for the state, our mission is clear. As Chancellor Steinmetz said yesterday, we should always strive to be better and distinguish ourselves as a great university.

Change and Ecological Metaphors

I'd first like to talk about change. A successful future will require us to navigate substantial change in the forces that affect higher education. Some studies suggest that demographic trends in the population could result in as much as a 30-35 percent decline in Arkansans entering four-year colleges and universities over the next decade. And students may be more likely to be first-generation college students with greater needs for financial and student support. Yet, the need for lifelong learning nationally will be increasing in graduate populations to acquire skills and knowledge to keep pace in a changing economy.  

We know that there are changes in the majors that students are choosing. We know that employers are expecting us to better and more quickly adapt our curricula to help create the workforce. We know that the importance of research, scholarship and creative work in creating the innovation and cultural vibrancy necessary to drive economic and cultural well-being will only grow in importance while the budgets for supporting that work are unlikely to keep pace with the need. And, we know that so many of the important solutions to major problems are going to come from the edges of disciplines ‑ where teams of people from different disciplines and with different perspectives, backgrounds and approaches work together in an inclusive environment, free from bureaucratic and cultural barriers.

As you probably already know, I like to think about the university as an ecosystem composed of overlapping and integrated academic, student life and administrative/operational functions. There are three inputs into this metaphorical ecosystem — students, funding and faculty/staff — and three simple but extraordinarily important outputs — propelling graduates into meaningful and successful lives; research, scholarship and creative outputs that matter to fields of study and/or to people; and improving the quality of life locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

To extend the ecosystem and ecological metaphor, when I think of the changing higher education landscape, I think about how organisms and systems adjust, acclimate and adapt to change. As we think together as a campus about the forces that will shape the next 150 years (or even the next five) of the University of Arkansas, I hope we can collectively think about what forces we can simply adjust to; what forces we can acclimate to by making some fundamental changes in our current structure and processes; and what forces we will have to truly adapt to as a university. In a biological metaphor, adapting means fundamentally changing our DNA. I am looking forward to a vibrant discussion of change as the year moves forward.

One way to ensure that we can adjust, acclimate and adapt to change is to create a culture that unites the complex units of this university in ways where every decision on resource allocation — in every unit — is examined in the context of the ecosystem model.  In other words, we all should ask ourselves the question: "Is the decision I am about to make about allocating resources (e.g., money, space, time, etc.) the best decision to propel university graduates on to meaningful and successful lives, and/or to produce research, scholarship and creative works that matter to people; and/or to improve the quality of life?"  If the answer is "no," then a different decision should be made. You might be interested in a podcast Dean Waller and I did on this subject.

Those three outcomes are the core of our flagship mission, which is advanced by the eight guiding priorities in our strategic plan. We now have a metrics dashboard available which provides data on our progress toward measurable goals outlined in the strategic plan.

Changes in Academic Affairs Leadership

I want to welcome new leaders to the Academic Affairs team:

  • Cheryl Murphy, previously the chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, is our new vice provost for distance education, replacing Don Judges, who retired this fall. Dr. Murphy brings tremendous expertise and national leadership in distance education and understands the valuable role that Global Campus plays in workforce development and distance learning for residents in the state of Arkansas. 
  • Kathy Sloan, Professor of History, Director of the Arkansas Humanities Center, and previous Associate Dean of Fulbright College and Chair of the Department of History, is our new vice provost for faculty affairs after Ro DiBrezzo stepped down to return to COEHP faculty. Dr. Sloan is a highly respected scholar with an exciting vision for how to recruit, develop and retain top-notch faculty.
  • Dennis Clark is our new dean of libraries, replacing Carolyn Allen, who will work on special projects for the Provost's Office this year. Dr. Clark comes to us from the University of Virginia and brings extensive experience in library leadership to this position and the unique mix of qualifications necessary to continue leading the growth and adaptation of our libraries.
  • Brian Primack is our new dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, replacing Mike Miller, who has returned to faculty to serve as professor of higher education. Dr. Primack comes to us from the University of Pittsburgh and has extensive expertise in both education and medicine, making him a perfect fit to lead COEHP.

U of A Accomplishments

I am so proud to be colleagues with the faculty and staff of this university who have already stepped up to so many of the challenges facing the university. I'd like to recap some of those successes and other notable university accomplishments.

  • The focus the campus has placed on student success has led to record-breaking outcomes in retention and graduation rates. Our campus culture of student success will only continue to grow with the construction of our Student Success Center, which will be a hub for academic, financial and social support for our students.
  • Earlier this year, we announced our Signature Research Areas: Advancing the Data Revolution, Improving Human Health and Community Vibrancy, and Innovating for a Resilient and Sustainable Future. We also appointed four Chancellor's Fellows — Jamie Baum, Heather Nachtmann, Raj Rao and Brent Williams — who are working this year with you across campus to help advance specific focal points within the Signature Research Areas. Our preliminary numbers suggest that research expenditures will reach record levels again.
  • We also allocated funds that ultimately led to six new tenure-track faculty lines in our Signature Research Areas through proposals submitted from the colleges. These faculty lines address areas such as advanced food manufacturing, materials and infrared imaging, human experimental neuroscience, big data in health and health communication, timber and wood design innovation and precision agriculture.
  • The embracing of an entrepreneurial and innovative culture on our campus has kept our research funding at record levels while fostering record levels of invention disclosures and commercialization activity. Additionally, 47 percent of our invention disclosures included at least one female investigator, placing Arkansas in the top 20 states for women inventors.
  • We are leading the way in sustainable design using innovation in timber and wood, which will change the timber industry in this state.
  • We continue to allocate scholarship money to reduce financial barriers for Arkansans to attend the university. These scholarships will be life-changing for these students and is a reaffirmation of our land-grant mission.
  • We have created a new Chancellor's Fund for the Humanities and Performing Arts that will reward faculty-led projects and initiatives in those two areas. The humanities and performing arts are crucial to instilling creativity and intellectual vibrancy in our campus that is at the heart of our research and discovery and the core of a liberal arts education.
  • This fall, we launched the IDEALS Institute and named Elecia Smith to lead the institute under the leadership of Yvette Murphy-Erby. This center will help expand our local and state outreach efforts, bringing research-based training in best practices to recruit and retain a talented and diverse workforce and creating inclusive organizational environments.
  • An economic impact study completed this year showed a $2.2 billion impact from the university on the state's economy. The $2.2 billion figure marks a tripling of the university's impact from $725 million in 2009 and is a reminder of the crucial role our university plays in this state.
  • We showed real leadership as a flagship, land grant institution in providing pathways to a four-year college degree with the Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship.
  • We developed a new, first of its kind here, cross-disciplinary and cross-college curriculum with a  new Data Science degree (pending ADHE approval) aimed at meeting the needs of employers and creating new graduate programs and certificates.
  • We continue to make progress on Digital Measures, with more than 700 faculty profiles completed and nearly 50 trainings completed for department chairs, faculty members and administrative assistants. Once fully implemented, this platform will streamline our ability to track faculty activities, which will help us more easily communicate and contextualize the profound impact of our faculty's work.
  • This year we will begin planning for a new, dedicated research building, a necessary addition of research space that will keep us competitive as a research university. We are also looking at the possibility of partnering with UAMS to create an Institute of Health Sciences Research and Innovation.

Additionally, units will be moving forward to align their personnel policies with the new Promotion and Tenure policy approved last spring by our Faculty Senate and recently approved by the Board of Trustees; we will continue with the implementation of the new general education curriculum; and I will be asking Global Campus to work together with the Teaching and Faculty Support Center to provide integrated support to assist faculty in driving innovation in teaching and learning.

Thank you!

As Chancellor Steinmetz said yesterday, you can't have a great university without great faculty and the outstanding staff who support them and our students. The university has made progress in bringing faculty compensation in line with our benchmark schools over the last four years. And work continues to improve staff salaries as well. You all are an essential part of this university and our mission as we strive to do even better things this year.

As always, it is an honor and a pleasure working with you, and I look forward to another productive year of academic success here at the U of A.


John T. Post, director of academic communications
University Relations


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