Episode 265: Charting the Course for Walton College's Future with Brent Williams

February 28 , 2024  |  By Brent Williams

Share this via:

This week on the Be Epic podcast, Brent sits down with a familiar face, Dean Emeritus Matt Waller as Matt turns the mic around for a conversation with Brent to discuss his vision and plans as the new Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. During the episode Brent highlights his focus on innovating curricula to meet evolving industry needs, particularly in analytics and emerging technologies, and empowering faculty and staff to drive transformation. He also details more about his priorities focused on elevating the student experience through engagement opportunities as well as cultivating thought leadership and fueling the state's economy. Brent also discusses graduate program growth and the importance of industry-sponsored research in advancing knowledge, citing innovative partnerships with companies like Walmart.

Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Brent Williams  0:00  
Stopping and thinking about the purpose, every single day, you know how it is right, you come into work. And you can just quickly get involved in the to do list or the list of meetings. But just take a second and look around you. Welcome to the be epic podcast brought to you by the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

Matt Waller  0:21  
I have with me today, Brent Williams, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and today we're talking about the Walton College, his plans for the future. And I'm already familiar with them, and really, really impressed with what Brent is doing. And I think the future is better than the past or the present, given what he's planning. So Brent, thanks for joining me today.

Brent Williams  0:47  
Well, Matt, thanks for stepping back into the chair. I appreciate that. And well, I don't know if, if I can say that yet that the future is exactly better than the past. We're going to try really, really hard to make that true,

Matt Waller  1:01  
I think you're gonna do terrific. So, Brent, we're going to be talking today about the Walton College and where you're taking it. And I'm really excited about this, I think, I hope a lot of students listen to this, I hope parents, I hope, your board and alumni listen to this, because this is a new era. It's the era of Brent Williams as Dean. And you have some unique idiosyncrasies and thoughts and capabilities that are going to leave a really positive impact so if you're listening. Go ahead and listen to the whole thing. This is going to be a great discussion. So Brent, I want to start with the beginning. Let's start with the vision, what put the vision in your words and the mission and what you think's important.

Brent Williams  1:52  
Yeah. Well, first, I'm extremely excited about the future, as are you, I am grateful to have the opportunity. And as we talked about, when we did an episode like this, as I transitioned into interim, I think I'm really, really fortunate to have had so much experience at the Walton College and in the state of Arkansas. So really, really excited to move forward. Now, when I think about the vision, I love it, I absolutely love it, it resonates with me. At times, I'll tell people, you know, it can kind of get me up in the morning and get me excited. And when I think about it, I just Matt tend to boil it down in some ways into like these two elements that stand out to me. And we say, in that vision that we want to be a thought leader and we want to be a catalyst for transforming lives. And as a thought leader in business, what an important role to play in the state in the US really globally, where we want to be knowledge creators that push both business forward, that helps those around us learn from our research, and, in turn, what we're learning throughout practice. And that's a really, really important role that we play that I think's unique. Now, the other part of the vision statement that particularly excites me is we say we're going to be a catalyst for transforming lives. And I like to break that down just a little bit. You know, the transforming lives is largely about our students, not exclusively, but largely about our students. And you think about if we think about an undergraduate student that joins us, let's say when they're 18 years old, and going to spend four years with us, that is a very important period in one's life. And so while our students are here, they truly are transforming and becoming, you know, what, the professional that they're going to be the adult that they're going to be. And I think it's really, really important that our experience promotes that transformation. And, you know, a word that really stuck with me. I think we might have talked or touched on this in the last podcast that we did together. We say we're a catalyst meaning we're kind of the place where all the ingredients come together, right? You know, you think about it like a chemical reaction. It's really the magic happens when you put all the right ingredients in the same place and they react to one another. And the reason why I think that's so important, is that there's a lot of stakeholders involved in making that happen. It's not just us as the faculty and staff we are a really important part of it. But the students have a part to play in it, parents, families have a part to play in it. Our industry partners certainly have a part to play in it. So, that's what I love about our vision statement is that it's simple. It's inspiring. And it includes everyone, that's a stakeholder in the Walton College.

Matt Waller  5:14  
You know, as long as I've known you, I think you've been very vision, mission driven and it's so important, you know, especially for our college, the Walton College, we are having an impact on so many future business leaders and managers. That vision you just articulated from your, your, your memory, and from your heart is so important because as that becomes a reality, it's going to affect the future economy of the state and the region, the heartland.

Brent Williams  5:54  
Absolutely, you know, I often wish that, that those like our alumni and the companies that support us, and we've got wonderful boards that advise and support. Often, I wish they could spend more time here, you know, if, if you walk out into our courtyard, between a class change, and you've done this hundreds of times, I'm sure. You know, every once awhile just stand in the center, and you see all of these people walking by you. And if you really kind of stop and take it in for just a moment, you know, the future of company X, or Y, or Z or the next, you know, scalable business in Arkansas that leader just walked by you, you know, and and that may be 20 years from now, maybe 30, maybe 10. I don't know how long it's going to be. But when you stand in the courtyard, particularly when everyone's changing and walking by it's like the nexus of the future, in some way, in our state, in my opinion.

Matt Waller  7:03  
Well, you're really good about interacting with students, interacting with alumni. Interacting with faculty, staff, you, you are a master of that. And I think that that's, I've done a lot of AACSB reaccreditation reviews, about two a year over my eight year time. And I noticed so many dean's I had met really didn't do enough of that. They it didn't even seem like they wanted to, to a degree. But I've always seen in you, you're always wanting to talk to people get to know them get feedback. And it just seems so important and kind of leads to my next question. I know one thing you really want to do. And you've been planning for this even before you were Dean, you want to elevate the student experience. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Brent Williams  8:05  
Yeah, I can. And maybe back to that earlier comment just real briefly. This is something you taught me is, you know, as as dean, you've got a lot of important facets of the role. And it's hard to say right, which is more important, they're all important, and probably in any given day one's more important than the other. But one extremely important part is that you serve as the ambassador of the Walton College. And, you know, one thing I have learned in the as I was Interim Dean, I knew this, but you know how it is you experience it yourself and takes on a different meaning. The number of people that reached out to me that congratulated me that supported me, and I realize this isn't about me, necessarily. This is about our college and our institution, people in our state and our alumni, they care, they care about this place, that as a very, very powerful thing. And, and we want, we want to continue to take our brand and our stories, to more and more people so that they continue to care, so that they continue to support and that we grow that support because it's very, very important to have that support. If we're really going to be thought leaders and catalysts for transforming lives. It takes all of those people, you know, but you you asked about elevating the student experience and I love that word student experience, you know, because I do think if we, if we're going back to that we're going to transform lives. There's a lot of aspects to an experience that are important. And to one person, one part may be more important than the other. You know, but so you've got to have a well rounded experience to make that happen. And I always think, you know, that starts in the classroom, very, very critical part of the experience, of course, as it seems obvious to say, but but ensuring that, that our curriculum and our classrooms are places where students are really starting to learn and set up for their future. So that's, that's really clear. I do think that curricula have to always be evolving. And I think we've done a pretty good job of that at the Walton College. But as you and I have talked about, the pace of change in business is accelerating, as it always has been, it's going to continue to accelerate even faster, which means we have to adapt. And we have to part of that as adapting our curricula to fit the needs of our students and industry. And, and, and even try to get ahead, you know, of where that's going. And so one piece of the curricula that that I've been really excited about is analytics, which actually does align to one of the strategic focus areas in our mission statement. Now, I start to think about, actually think about those three areas of distinctiveness. And I think they have broadened for us over time. Yeah. So maybe if you look on our website, and you look at what the word actually says, it's a little more narrow than the way we practice it. So I think we'll probably make some adjustments to that. But you know, I think I think you when you think about analytics, I think you think about analytics and emerging technology as something that is going to continue to be a strategic focus area for us. Because we know that our students need to understand how to how to not just use technology, but how technology applies in business, how it interacts with people and process. And that's never changing, right? So technology is always going to be emerging. So you know, when I think about that focus area, I was thinking about a little broader. But that's now seeping into curricular changes that we're making. I'm very interested in how we broaden the, I guess the number of our students that have business analytics, in some way, shape, or form actually, multiple times. I think that we may even end up to where it's in our core to our hope we end up so that every student gets it. But it's more than just the core right? It's then how does that connect to earlier parts of the curriculum that set that up. And then as someone as a student gets into their major, now they're starting to see analytics focused courses. And all of those majors, I think, almost every one of them has an analytics focused course, plus analytics is throughout other courses. So at every step along the way, for a student, you know, I want them to be exposed to analytics and growing in their analytical capabilities and the application of their analytical capabilities. That's really important to me. And then I would also say that experiential learning is very, very important. I think we, we hit the wall, and colleges do a good job of this, but it's an area that we can push ourselves even further. And, you know, there's a lot of ways to go about that programmatically. I think, you know, I think we should pursue many of them. But one of the most important ways to learn experientially is to be involved in the marketplace, is to have an internship have multiple internships are actually you know, one thing I've been thinking a lot about, I don't know if that's the right word to use, but it's almost like apprenticeships or co ops, where particularly as our students get into their senior year, maybe even their junior year, where they are working in a meaningful role inside a company that they may want to go to work for. And, and I think that as they've, as they've had at least two years, maybe a third year of college under their belt, you know, they're pretty deep into their major at that point, they can contribute to the companies, the company can contribute to their development. And, and they can they can make money while they're doing it, offsetting the cost of attending college. And then I think that we can do some things that enable that and some of that is creating flexibility as you know, right? You know, you've got to have flexibility in your course structures in the times in online options available to those students so that they can do both if we're going to encourage them to do that. I would also like to see us and I think we've got some early thoughts on this is, while students are doing that, how do we give them the professional development and mentorship that they need? And, you know, the reason why I'm talking about all of that is, by the time you're at that stage, as an undergraduate student, I'm talking primarily about our undergraduate students here. I think you've started to get enough context and starting to get enough experience where you know, that professional and that development and that mentorship really matters, and it sticks. And then, you know, they're taking what they've learned, and they're applying it. And then, you know, and then the next time they're in class, they are thinking about how they applied it, and how does that now influence the stickiness of what's happening in the classroom? So I just see those things. I see learn and apply or learn and do I don't know the right combinations of words, but I think they become very synergistic.

Matt Waller  16:24  
Well, Brent, I know you're passionate about undergraduates, but you're also passionate about our graduate students. You've been very involved in master's programs and a doctoral program in many different ways, as a faculty member, and as a administrator. Talk a little bit about this with respect to the master's programs. And you might even want to talk a little bit about the master's programs themselves.

Brent Williams  16:48  
Yeah, maybe just giving someone the landscape, we've got many different paths for a student to get a graduate degree in our college. And to the extent to some extent, they can even create, you know, some of their own paths. In some of our programs. Well, we've got full time programs, we've got programs that are designed for working professionals. And then as you've met, as you mentioned, we've got a PhD program that's really designed to help a student really learn to be a researcher, and teacher. And most of those students, not all but most are entering academia. So the full suite of programs, but I'll maybe I'll maybe talk here about our master's degrees, a place where you as Dean put a lot of focus into growing different types of specialized programs. But but I'll maybe start with our Executive MBA, you know,

Matt Waller  17:46  
what a great program

Brent Williams  17:47  
Oh, my, you know, we, when you, when we talk about experiential learning, or an a student experience, that's a program we've been doing it really well for a really long time. And, and I think we're only getting better. And, you know, we have always thought about that as a holistic experience, we designed it for the working professional, someone that that has experience, we know they have a busy life. So you know, much of its online, but there's still that in person component to it that we think is actually now interestingly a differentiator to it. You know, where you're spending time in the classroom, you're interacting with the professor, you are interacting with each other, which may be the most important part, you're having lunch with each other, you know, you might be watching a football game on the Saturday night after the class. And then, you know, if, you know, and then you're, you're building relationships that that are lasting for probably the next 20, 30 years of your career in that program. It's just such a valuable, valuable program. And you know, and then we've taken what we've learned in that executive MBA program where we're applying that in many of the specialized programs, where they're offered in the same formats, or they're offered fully online, or they're offered in a purely full time way so there's just a lot of options there. And, and I think in we're always thinking about how we evolve that experience, and particularly in our graduate programs are always looking for, you know, are these hitting the mark for what the learner needs. And that's always moving and changing. And just as an example, the launch of the Master of Science in Product Innovation, a brand new program, healthcare analytics, a brand new program, and these are just areas where people need to build their skills, and they need them in a highly specialized way. They need them usually in a pretty flexible format. And, and so we're designing those experiences for those students and with those students in mind. And it has it, I think as you know, and as you've been a part of, it's been a real joy to see our whole college get behind that effort, and really focus and build some cutting edge programs and wonderful experiences, no doubt in my mind. And then we've got our PhD program that's really, really important not only for the student, you know, so it is, it's an important experience for the student who is deciding to spend four or five years of their life in this program. It's rigorous, it's hard, it's intensive. But it's really important to our research mission. Those programs are very important to faculty who are research who are research focused. And that, you know, I've talked about, I talked about an apprentice kind of program in the undergraduate experience, that really is what a PhD program really is, particularly in those last couple of years. You mean, you're working directly with a few faculty, and we don't call it an apprenticeship. But it is effectively that.

Matt Waller  21:19  
You're equally passionate about empowering faculty and staff to help fulfill the vision of the Walton College. Would you speak to that a little bit?

Brent Williams  21:30  
Yeah, you know, I think about like, we're in the business of developing human capital, right. And our primary input is human capital. You know, it's an interesting business to be in, if you want to think about it that way. But we want to develop students, and the way you do that is putting great people around them. And, well, part of our role as college leaders is to ensure that we are empowering those faculty and staff to not only do their job, but but to innovate in their roles. And, and that means innovation in curriculum. And we want we want departments pushing themselves to think about, like, what's the next step for for our students? What, what do we miss, like what's industry telling us, and you have to feel empowered to be able to do that, right, you have to feel like that you can get the resources to do it. And, and you also, you know, have to feel like if sometimes if we started something, and maybe it doesn't work, that's actually okay. And that's a culture, I feel like you were an important part of building here. And we want to continue that. And we want this to be a great place to work for our faculty and staff, we want them to enjoy it, and, and feel the purpose in it, you know, and I think that's one thing we've started talking a good bit about, just really, in the last couple of months is, you know, stopping and thinking about the purpose, every single day, you know how it is right, you come into work. And you can just quickly get involved in the do list or the list of meetings. But just take a second and look around you, you know and think one, I get to work on a university campus, which is just beautiful and a great place to be. But going back to what I said just a moment ago, the future is walking around you. Oftentimes, I'll pause every now and again at my desk, stand up and look out the big window. And you know, see students walking back and forth. And you remember when you do that, like, okay, you know, that's our purpose here. That's our purpose every day is develop these people, into better professionals into into better people. And so to do that with 9000 students, it means you've got to have an empowered faculty and staff. It's so important.

That is so exciting. I know, you also have always been really engaged in growing relationships with business and alumni. You've been doing that for a long time here even as a student. But but you know, as as a I mean you were you had the role of Associate Dean for executive education. That was one of your roles. And one of your you had several different roles as an Associate Dean, but that was one that you came into early and really made a big difference. And but would you mind speaking a little bit about that? What what do you plan on doing in the future? What's important, those kinds of things? 

Yeah. Well, I'll go back to that piece of the vision that catalyst for transforming lives. And thought leader actually, as I think about it. I think companies and industry and alumni are so critical to, to achieving the vision in both of those areas. And so let's talk about catalysts for transforming lives. It, it takes more than just the classroom. It takes the internships it takes the co ops, it takes the apprenticeships, it takes the coming in and speaking, it takes the mentoring that's happening, it takes the hundreds of companies that are coming in and and partnering with us on career fairs. I could keep going. But I see a lot of my role as how do I continue to grow, to deepen our relationships with industry and broaden those relationships? All for the purpose of like, how do I get more companies and people into the mix, because ultimately, that's what's going to increase our student experience. And, and that's what's going to continue to mean that we're creating more and more values for students and their families in the long term. So I think it couldn't be more important, not just for me as the dean for so many of us in the college to just be engaged. And and I think that that's really what it means right to be in the business community. And that can be as simple as attending an event or working directly with a company, it just depends on, you know, the amount of of time and bandwidth that you have to put into it. But also think that that this engagement is also really important to the thought leader piece of our vision. You know, because as you're trying to develop knowledge, you cannot do that in a vacuum. And by being able to interact and test those ideas, or even source those ideas, so like, what are the problems? What are the big problems to solve out there? And how can we, as faculty contribute to that, through research through projects that we might do, either maybe with our students in classrooms, so I see industry, touching, absolutely every part of what we do. But I think it's incumbent on us to make this an environment where they know that they are contributor, where they can get value out of contributing, and to help inspire them that this is something you can do that really is going to impact the future for a long time.

Matt Waller  27:48  
So Brent, earlier, you were talking about the three components of the mission. And you were talking about how they've, you're expanding them from where they have been, one example you gave was analytics and technology. And I think that's so important. I'm glad you're doing that. What are the other two?

Brent Williams  28:10  
Yeah, the other two in our mission statement are entrepreneurship and retail. And so each of those I, again, I actually think what's interesting is I took a step back as I'm taking this role. I looked at our vision statement, you know, and I felt like like those two elements that we've talked about a good bit so far, they're still right. And then as I looked at our mission statement, I looked specifically at those strategic areas of focus or areas of distinctiveness, I feel like they're still right, they just are probably broader and need to be broadened. Thus, analytics and emerging technology is at least the way I say it. Entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship is a strategic focus area for the Walton College. And the progress that we have seen in the last several years is truly unbelievable, in my mind, in terms of, you know, we've we've had new venture development as a core part of that program in our graduate program for a long time. Now we have a unique department that has a focus on it. We have new venture development in the undergraduate program now so correct from a curricular standpoint, we really expanded our Office of Innovation of entrepreneurship and innovation is now touching students in a non curricular way and a curricular way, but primarily in a non curricular way, all across this campus and then touching all kinds of entrepreneurs and throughout the state, you know, but so I think it remains absolutely core to our focus but I do think about it more broadly as just entrepreneurship and innovation, because I think those, that mindset that we're trying to instill and develop in our, in our students and the people connected to us is the same, you know, whether you are building your own company or whether or not you're innovating inside a large enterprise, the mindset, and many time, actually, the processes for doing so, is exactly the same. So we will continue to put a strong focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. And then you we also say, retail. Well, you and I both do this kind of naturally, where we broaden that. And and I don't know exactly what the right term is for it, you know, but you and I will both tend to say, the same thing, which will be well, you know, retail, supply chain, consumer products, maybe we're really talking about a retail value chain. That is core to who this area in the state is and, and thus, it's core to who we are. And it's when we focus in those areas, that there's real synergy with what's happening out in the community around us like entrepreneurship, like retail, and supply chains, and consumer product and innovation. We tend to succeed. And I think it's because there's synergy in it. So those are three areas of distinctiveness. You know, and maybe, you know, thinking maybe taking even a step back from that earlier you asked me about, you know, our student experience and empowering our faculty and staff. And one thing that I am really passionate about is that we keep health and well being at in the conversation and at the center of how you do that. Because for people to be at their best to learn, you know, at their maximum capacity to perform as a researcher, as a teacher, as someone, providing support to students. health and well being is really, really important to that. And now, we are fortunate to live in Northwest Arkansas, where you know, the infrastructure is rapidly expanding, it's actually expanding throughout the state, which is one thing I'm really excited about in the state of Arkansas, is the quality of life here is really, really good. And I think it's only going to get better. And all of those pieces of the quality of life, promote holistic health and well being.

Brent to wind this up, I want to ask you a little bit about the state. Now I knew, I know that you grew up in Newport, Arkansas, which is in the Delta. And you've spent a lot of your life here, although after you got your PhD, you, you went to Auburn and TCU. And you came back. But you were born and raised in the Delta. I think you may be the first dean of our college to have experienced that. But I know you have a passion for the state. And I remember, even when I was dean early on, you were encouraging me to get more involved in Little Rock, which I did. And I remember we were driving the car somewhere and you you somehow you encourage me to really try to dive in deep and Little Rock. I don't remember the details. But I did it. And I'm glad I did. It was really important. I think our college had not done as much of that. But I know you want to even take that further. Could you speak to that a little bit?

Well, when you when you think about our university, maybe just start the University of Arkansas is both a flagship and land grant University. Which means we've got a lot of a lot of different responsibilities to, again, serve as that land that that flagship institution but also served the state through our land grant mission. And those are both really important to us. And, you know, one of the reasons why this job is so exciting to me, is because I get to think about and help our faculty and staff think about and strategize on how we're going to contribute to this state. And one way we do that, of course, is educating Arkansans in business and we're educating more Arkansans in business than we ever have before and that's exciting to me. And as someone that as you said, grew up here. You know, I'm sure there's some places in Arkansas I haven't been, but probably not many, you know. And so I can relate, you know, to those students in some way, shape or form 

Matt Waller  35:12  
and alumni 

Brent Williams  35:13  
and alumni. And, you know, it seems like half the time I meet one of these students I even know, their parents or, you know, I know someone who knows their parents. And, you know, which speaks to the state one another reason why I really love it is the connectedness of the state. You know, it doesn't take long sitting in a room with somebody to have a connection. And, and people want to help each other here. And, and then there's this, in a relatively small state, there's this high degree of concentration of business, like this state, you know, swings above its weight, right, if you want to use that phrase, in business, I mean, think of the companies that have been built in this state. And that's all across the state. I mean, you know, we know about what's happening in Northwest Arkansas, but, you know, great things happening in Central Arkansas, we've got great partners there, like, like, Stephens Inc, has been a wonderful partner to us. And there's so many, I can't, I can't now, Yeah, Dillards, and 

Matt Waller  36:22  
Murphy Oil, Murphy, USA, 

Brent Williams  36:24  
So many, you know, and then get into the delta. And there's agricultural businesses that are that are booming there so business is, we can be integrated throughout this entire state. And I think it just kind of gives us a unique opportunity being both the flagship and the land grant. And I just think the Walton College has a special place in the state, I think it's a special institution, we have so many alumni throughout the state and beyond. But they they still care about this place. And so one of the things I'm looking forward to maybe most about this job is to be able to get out into all of those places. And spend more time with our alumni and spend time with the companies that hire our students. Tell them the story of what's happening here, if they don't get to be here regularly. Every time I'm out, they asked me how they can help, you know, and what a blessing that is, you know, when you have that many people wanting to help you achieve your mission. So what a wonderful place we live in. I'm glad. I'm thrilled to be at the University of Arkansas, the Walton College and in the state of Arkansas. 

Matt Waller  37:41  
Well, thank you so much for letting me interview you for this topic. It's really clear, you know, great leaders vision, they can they can create a vision and articulate it. And you demonstrated that over and over, but particularly in this podcast. And also sense making you know, sense making so important to leadership, I hear you do that all the time. You did it multiple times on this recording. And now that I'm back on the faculty and no longer than administrator, I, you know, three of my kids have graduated from University of Arkansas, two from the Walton College and one is still my fourth one is in the Walton College. And I'm glad she's here, under your leadership. Seriously, I I mean, the leader leaders make a difference. 

Brent Williams  38:35  

Matt Waller  38:35  
I've seen so many business schools because I've done all these reviews, for the AACSB. And one thing that I really believe leadership makes a difference. Vision makes a difference. And sensemaking be able to look around and say, here's what's going on. This was what it means for us. And you really do that well. So I'm confident that our best days are ahead as a college. 

Brent Williams  39:03  
Well Matt, two things, one there, there's no greater compliment than then a parent saying they're going to send their child to the institution that you're leading. So thank you for that. And thank you to all the many families that are trusting us, you know, with this experience, and and then thanks for coming back and sitting in the in the podcast chair with me and given me a chance to share this and the way you've impacted me over the years and mentored me. I'm excited about the future. I think that we're going to continue to do great things at the Walton College. On behalf of the Walton College. Thank you for joining us for this captivating conversation. To stay connected and never miss an episode. Simply search for be epic on your preferred podcast service.