University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 22: Provost Jim Coleman Discusses the Ecosystem Test and Direction of the University of Arkansas

May 01, 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Jim Coleman is the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and professor of biological sciences at the University of Arkansas. He is a plant physiological ecologist and academic administrator with a broad background that crosses multiple disciplines. Jim is responsible for leading the development and implementation of the University of Arkansas’ strategic plan and oversight of all of the university’s academic operations.

Episode Transcript


00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and your life today. I have with me today the provost of the University of Arkansas, Jim Coleman. Thank you for joining me today, Jim.

00:32 Jim Coleman: Thanks, Matt, I really look forward to our conversation.

00:35 Matt Waller: Jim, I know your background has to do with ecology. Would you tell us just a little bit about your background in ecology?

00:45 Jim Coleman: So, I am a plant physiological ecologist by training. And that field is a field that was started... Or at least a way to think about how it was started, by people who walked out into areas that have extreme environments, such as the Arctic or the desert, then asked themselves how is it possible that plants could live in these environments, and then studied the really amazing physiological adaptations that plants have evolved to be able to live in very stressful places. And that led me to wanna understand how plants respond to a range of environmental changes, such as things associated with climate change. And as I moved on in my career, we not only got interested in just how individual plants respond but how whole ecosystems respond when different kind of plants change in different ways, which causes different kind of changes in things that eat plants or things that eat the things that eat plants, or change things in the soil. So whole ecosystems can be affected just because plants are changed differentially by stress.

01:49 Matt Waller: As the chief academic officer of the university, you lead us in the academic area of the university. And leadership entails being able to create vision, and being able to create vision requires articulation of that vision, being able to see, so to speak, where we're going. You used your background, your scientific background, to create a metaphor to give people in the university that work here a big picture of what's going on. Would you mind describing that a little bit?

02:27 Jim Coleman: Not at all. I love metaphors, and I think it's a great way to allow people to think about the university in a complex in a different way. And as a ecologist, sitting on top of the university, I started to think about the university as an ecosystem. And it's a relatively simple ecosystem to explain. So, like all ecosystems, we have inputs into the system, and those inputs are students, are employees, so faculty and staff, and the money and resources it takes to run a university. And then all ecosystems have some kind of things that output from them, that leave the system or outputs to the functions that they do. Our ecosystem has three of the most important outputs that human society could imagine, and one of those outputs is, if we're successful, we propel our graduates on to profoundly meaningful and successful lives. Another output, which is extraordinarily important, is that we conduct research and creative activities that matter to people, that change lives and change their fields. And the third thing we do, because we're a flagship land grant university, is we have a mission to improve people's lives, particularly in Arkansas and beyond. And the way that our system works is those three inputs, people, students, and money, come into our ecosystem, and all ecosystems have functional components.

03:56 Jim Coleman: You can think of our functional components in three broad overlapping categories. One of those categories is academic functions. So all the teaching and the research that we do. A second function is related to student affairs, and that's making sure our students have places to live, have places to eat, and have activities that engage them in the university. And the third piece, I'll just call administrative functions, but that's everything else that enables the university to run. And when those three functions are working optimally and working well together, then the ideal would be that we have great outputs, that we do a great job of transforming students' lives, that we do research that changes the world, and we make people's lives better. And when we do that well, that makes more people want to come to the university, more students want to enroll, and more people are interested in investing in the university. And if we do that poorly, less people want to come to the university, less money comes into the university, because they trust us less, and more students and faculty leave our ecosystem, and staff leave our ecosystem and go away. So as the provost, obviously, my big concern is how do we make those three components in the ecosystem work optimally so we maximize those outcomes?

05:13 Matt Waller: So this metaphor, of course, creates a clear mental image of what we're trying to do. And from a leadership perspective, one of the things that really struck me about the metaphor, of course, the metaphor you've created does help clarify the direction of the university, which is one of the three important things that a leader does. The two other real important things a leader does include gaining alignment of people, and when they can easily... You mentioned at the very beginning, well this is a simple metaphor. And of course, the best metaphors are simple. But then the third one is providing motivation to people. And you mentioned those three outputs. And I think the people that are drawn to work in the university, they really like those three outputs. There's something internally motivating about them. And so, just realizing that that's the purpose, that's why we're here, we're here to make the lives of our students better to propel them on to great things, and to discover and have research that makes mankind better, and then to help the state of Arkansas and beyond to be all that it can be. Those are motivating, it makes you feel good about going to work.

06:38 Matt Waller: And so, it's interesting how that metaphor encompasses all three of what leaders do into one little simple message. They say what leaders do includes setting direction, gaining alignment, providing motivation, but then also, there are four key capabilities of leadership: Visioning, inventing, boundary spanning, and relating. Obviously, the visioning one, a metaphor like this is really powerful for that. But the inventing piece, it's like the inventing piece is how do I apply this metaphor to our situation? That's a creative activity, per se. It was easy for you to do because you're familiar with that ecosystem. But did you wind up revising it very much as you thought through it?

07:31 Jim Coleman: So, for me, the power of this metaphor has two aspects. One is I think you're right, we are so lucky in academia to be, to work in probably the most transformational institution that human society has ever invented. And every one of us as faculty, and you know this, we get into this business because we care about transforming the lives of students and/or we care deeply about our research, and we wanna see impacts that make people's lives better. And in the day-to-day work of a university, we can get lost in all the things that... The morass of busyness or just the difficulties of human interactions, but being able to rise above that and remember why we're here is inspiring to me, and I think you're right, I think it is inspiring for people here. The second power of the metaphor, and I think I've just refined this more and more, is about how it helps us in the university make decisions. And so, what I tell people now, is every decision that I'm gonna make in the provost office, I put to what I call the ecosystem test. And the ecosystem test is simply this: Is the decision I'm going to make going to give me the best outcome to either propel students, graduates, onto great lives, to build research that matters, and to improve the lives of Arkansans? And if it's not the best decision to do one of those things, then I need to rethink and make a different decision.

08:51 Jim Coleman: And what I'm asking everybody in the university to do, as they think about how they're making decisions and allocating resources, that they think about that before they make the decision. And I know that's hard for people because humans are wired to think about what's best for us or what's best for our family, which is in this metaphor our department, or our college, or our school, or our unit, but as provost, if I even get 3% of the decisions made in this university to be changed because someone stepped back for a second and asked themselves that metaphor, we will get better as a university.

09:30 Matt Waller: And it seems like the kind of thing that can hold from a... To become a part of our culture. And I also think that a lot of researchers, even though they, most of our researchers are not in the area of biology. We have a huge biology group, but there are so many different areas of research and creativity going on here, it's pretty amazing. But I think one thing that we all have in common is we like the idea of theoretical frameworks because theoretical frameworks help us describe phenomena, help us explain phenomena, and even help us predict phenomena. And so I think for most of the constituents here on campus, hearing that kind of framework, to some degree, fits with their paradigm and helps them get on board. The other thing I was thinking of... As I said, one of the capabilities of the leader has to do with sense making, which is being able to look around you and see what's going on, whether it be internal to the university or external, and then being able to make sense of it. What does this mean? What does this new law or this new trend, or whatever it may be, mean for us as a university? When you use the ecosystem metaphor, you can easily use that to bring sense-making to this. In ecology and the ecosystem concept, how do you describe or think about new trends? In business, we might call it an exogenous event.

11:14 Jim Coleman: As an ecologist, when you think about ecosystems, there are several kinds of terms that can apply to the environment of the university. One's not really related to what you just said, but it's an important one. Some ecosystems have what we call ecosystem engineers. And ecosystem engineers are organisms in an ecosystem whose function has a much larger effect on the whole functioning of the ecosystem. And I'd like to think at a university, in some ways, that since we have one set of employees that actually teach students and do research. And so you can sort of think as faculty as our ecosystem engineers. And what's going on with our faculty and the kinds of faculty we hire and the way they interact with each other has an extraordinarily large impact on that. Another concept we think a lot about in ecology is what we'll call ecosystem resilience because ecosystems have lots of things that can disrupt their function or change their function. So, climate change is a big example, but you might have a heat wave or a drought or a fire or you may have people come in and cut down trees or we might have an invasive species and those kind of things then disrupt the function of a university.

12:31 Jim Coleman: But one of the things that define an ecosystem is they have a way to come back into balance. As you know, universities are facing all kinds of disruptive forces to our system, whether it be a legislative bill that wants to change our funding or direct us to do something, whether it's the digital revolution in some ways, or whether it's just the public's distrust of what we may do in public higher ed, or just the changing nature of the workforce. And I think one of our challenges, and you know this, is how can we as an organization sort of adjust to those factors within the ecosystem? And I don't have a great answer for your question, other than though I think the ecosystem metaphor gives us a way to think about it. Sometimes when those disruptions happen again we think about what that means to me. So you as a dean of business, if there's interruption, you're like, "What's gonna happen to my college? This faculty member just retired, my function is now different." I think all of us, if we stand back and say, "How is this disruption going to affect these three outcomes?" And if we think about the disruption in that way, we can think about the actions we can take to increase our resilience.

13:47 Matt Waller: Well, when you think about the university, there are so many different areas, there's psychology, sociology, criminology, accounting, laser physics, on and on and on, and there is an ecosystem therein. And one of the things that I thought of after you explained the metaphor, one thing that came to my mind was, it's easy for us in this ecosystem to not understand the importance of some element. Most innovation is the result of crossing things that aren't typically crossed. And so, within our ecosystem, how having this enormous diversity of disciplines increases the probability that real innovation is going to occur. And I think it's hard to see that.

14:50 Jim Coleman: Yeah, I think you're right. One of the other really fascinating parts of ecology is symbiotic and mutualistic relationships among organisms. And we discover these, in some ways, on a daily basis. But even if you think about an ecosystem, different kinds of plants can facilitate each other's kinds of growth or we have a situation with plants where something called mycorrhizae, which are fungi that have a mutualistic relationships with roots and the fungi get carbohydrates from the plant and the plant gets nutrients because the fungi is able to spread out through the soil and capture it. So if you pull Mycorrhizae out of that system, let's say by applying fungicides to the soil, you could destroy the whole productivity of the forest, even though on the surface you might say, "Oh, they're just little fungi." [laughter] And I think we're like that. You know, as a business student, if the English department disappeared...


15:52 Matt Waller: It would be a problem.

15:52 Jim Coleman: Your students need to learn how to write. It even means the things that we don't necessarily see on the surface, how important a role they play in the ecosystem. Just, for example, our IT staff and their role in making sure that we are connected through our IT or that we're moving forward in an IT program. You pull that away and the whole thing sort of stops working. But I think one of the key things about what you're saying is, we know ecosystems that lose diversity also move away from an optimization of their function. And I think we also know that some of the coolest evolutions of organisms and ecosystems have come from synergies, from organisms that evolved to do something together. The best example was when somehow bacteria and animal cells combined to create a mitochondria. Or where would plants be if the Mycorrhizae hadn't occured. I think that's a really good metaphor for the synergies that happen on the just cutting edges.


16:57 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpicPodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now, be epic!


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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