Provost Coleman Discusses Land Grant Mission and Sings Bus Tour Blues
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Provost Coleman Discusses Land Grant Mission and Sings Bus Tour Blues

Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a
research podcast of the University of Arkansas. I’m John Post, director of Academic
Communications, and I have with me today Dr. Jim Coleman, provost and executive
vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. In his role, Coleman serves as the
the chief academic officer for the university, and oversees all the
university’s academic operations. So like most provosts you came up through the
ranks as a faculty member, specifically as a professor of biological sciences.
Could you talk a little bit about what your research interests are in that
field? So John I’m a plant physiological ecologist, and when you say that most
people have no idea what that means. So I think the way to explain what plant,
what a plant physiological ecologist does, is it was a field that you can
think of as being started by really curious people who walked out into
extreme environments, areas like the Arctic or in the desert, and noticed that
plants are living there. And ask questions. How is it possible that plants
could live in these extreme environments? And then try to understand the
physiological mechanisms that have evolved in those areas to be able to
survive. I got very interested in that discipline as I was doing my PhD, and
though I was looking at something a little bit different, I was asking how do
plants respond to various types of stress including air pollution. And how
does that change them in a way that changes the way insects and diseases
interact with plants. And that led me to really want to understand a lot more
about plants and how their physiological mechanisms work, and that led me to do a
postdoc understanding how plants allocate resources between roots and
shoots. So if you think about a plant as an economic system, it creates leaves
that capture the resources of carbon dioxide and light, and it creates roots
that capture the resources of nutrients and water. And a plant has to
make a choice when it has a unit of carbon or a unit of nutrient, whether
it’s gonna make a leaf to take more carbon and light, or whether it’s gonna
make a root to take more nutrients and water. And those have to be in balance
to optimize growth and reproduction. So that, I studied how that process was
interfered with or changed by stress. What interests you in that field?
So I think plants are really cool. And one of the reasons I think plants are
really cool, in a lot of ways much cooler than animals, is because when the environment
changes and they get stressed, if you’re an animal that’s ambulatory, you just
move to someplace that’s not as stressful. You know, we as a human we get hot we
go in the shade, or if we’re lucky we go into air conditioning. But if you’re a
plant, you don’t have any choice in the matter of where you can move, so that the
ways that you adapt your physiology to survive to me were fascinating. And then
the other thing that fascinates me is the connections between things, and that
would be the connection between a cell and the whole plant and then to other
plants and then to ecosystems. And so I was really interested in both how can
we use plants to understand just how biological organisms have adapted to
changing environments, but also how interesting and complex ecosystems
or biological systems are. And how do you connect all those pieces. Sure so
you’re obviously passionate about this research. Why higher education administration?
What made you want to enter into that? So that’s sort of a funny story
in some ways. So when I started as a faculty member I was an assistant
professor at Syracuse University, and I was, I would say a pretty successful
faculty member. I received several grants, and I won a National Science Foundation
Young Investigator Award which was the most prestigious awards at that time
for young investigators. And so I was doing really well as a faculty member,
and at that time I was a pretty rebellious and pretty self-righteous
faculty member in a lot of ways. And so I really had no ambition to
become a university administrator. But about the period of time when I was going
up for promotion to associate professor, the National Science Foundation had asked
me if I’d be interested in running the program in ecological and evolutionary
physiology in my field, so my job there was to allocate 10 million dollars to
all the researchers in my area. And that was the major source of funding for
people who are physiological or evolutionary ecologists, and it was a
really fascinating panel. So I said, ‘Oh you know that sounds interesting.’
I wasn’t it married at the time. And you learn a lot, get to interact with great people,
and so I thought I’d pursue it. And I remember going down to Washington DC to
interview for the job, and the person who would become my boss asked me, ‘So Jim
are you interested in doing this because you want to become a chair and maybe a
dean or even a provost someday?’ And I looked at her, I think my chin hit the
ground. I mean I looked at her in horror like, ‘I would never go to the dark side!’
But I think over the year that I was at NSF, my definition of an administrator
changed from someone who wants to accumulate power and make people’s lives
difficult, to someone who facilitates the success of other people and of their
organization. Because at NSF my job was to facilitate the success of all the
researchers in my field, and I found that I was good at that. And when I
got back to the university and I had my lab and my classes, it just seemed kind
of small. I really wanted to do something bigger and that led me into a chain
of different administrative jobs. So you decided that you wanted to enter higher
education administration, and be a provost. Why the U of A? What made
you want to work here? So I am very passionate about the land-grant
mission. I graduated from University of Maine, and I went on in my career. And like most
academics, you know, I wanted to be in the best place, and I was lucky. I got to do
my PhD at Yale, and I managed to do postdocs at Stanford and Harvard and
got a job at Syracuse University. And that was great. I cared about my
research. I cared about my students. And then I started moving in an
administrative career, and I eventually had an opportunity to be a
vice provost for research at one of the top 20 institutions in the country. It
was a private institution, and it was a great place. There was great students,
great faculty, lots of resources, but I realized when I was there that the
mission of the university was about simply being as elite, as great, as strong,
as highly ranked as possible. But that what really turned me on in my career
was not that I was among the best, but of people whose lives changed because they
met me or because of my work. And I realized that my heart was in the public
mission, and that the land-grant university system was one of the
greatest pieces of legislation. And probably in a lot of ways in humankind
because it really laid out a foundation that higher education is a public good.
It was not just important for individuals to enrich their lives or to
enrich their future, but it was actually having a group of educated individuals
in areas that could help the country grow, would improve our democracy, would
improve the functioning of our communities and would raise the whole
country up. And it was really a transformational mission about linking
access and excellence and public service. And it just took me a while to realize
that well that’s what I was raised with, my dad and my mother, but I realized
that’s how I wanted to devote my life. And I needed to get back in a public
institution. Lots of other things happened in my career, but when the
University of Arkansas position came open it was exciting to me. The
University of Arkansas is the only research institution and is the
land-grant for this state, and in a lot of ways I felt like the University of
Arkansas is more important to the future of Arkansas and to the lives of Arkansans
than perhaps any other public university land-grant is for its state,
just because of the nature of research universities that we have here. And so
for me this was a great opportunity to be in a great school, under the
leadership of a chancellor who was widely respected, and one that can make
such a huge difference in the lives of people in this state. Great! I know
you’re passionate about the Chancellor’s bus tour that you go in
each year with new faculty, and I heard you’re quite the guitar player and have
a song that you played on the tour this year. Would you like to close this out by
giving us a rendition of the bus tour blues? (laughs) Oh sure John! (laughs) (guitar playing) Got the bus tour blues. Touring the state of Arkansas in a bus. (guitar playing) I got the bus tour blues… Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by
local musician, Ben Harris. For more information, and additional
podcasts, visit, the home of research news at
the University of Arkansas. …and so I’m just not gonna fuss. (guitar playing)

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