Todd Shields was named chancellor of the Arkansas State University System’s flagship campus in July. Shields had previously served since 2014 as the dean of the Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Arkansas. He also led the creation of the college’s School of Art.
Shields earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and psychology in 1990 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He earned a master’s in political science in 1991 and his Ph.D. in 1994, both at the University of Kentucky.
What are your top priorities as chancellor?
There is a saying at Arkansas State that “Every Red Wolf Counts,” and I want that to be a top priority not just for me as the chancellor, but for everyone here at A-State. It’s not just that every student counts. It’s that all our employees count. Our alumni count. The good people of Jonesboro are a part of it also. If we get that right, the rest will follow.
The business model for higher education is under pressure. How might universities like A-State adapt?
Today, there are signing bonuses and changing needs for students when they come out of high school. Fewer students are choosing the traditional route, and we understand that. Where the business model has changed — and where A-State is well positioned — is that sooner or later, a lot of the people who went directly into the workforce realize that they want to move into management, or they need to gain a new skill. That is when they will realize they need to come back to college or get additional training. Our online program is the largest in the state, and it is there for those midcareer employees coming back as an undergraduate to gain additional training or to finish a degree. The average age for our A-State Online undergraduates is 31, and our graduate students average 36 years old. They are settled; they often have families and have full-time jobs where they can’t pick up and come to anyone’s campus.
What does A-State do well, and where might it need more focus?
What A-State has done well for decades is be the university where a student may literally do anything they want, and at the same time know they are going to be taught by professors in smaller classes and that their faculty will know their names. This year, we had a team of students compete to place an experiment on the International Space Station. They’re battling for a slot with schools like Stanford and Columbia. And this summer, they went to NASA and launched that experiment. At the same time, students from our rural towns with huge ambitions can come here and feel at home.
The cost of education — and everything else — is rising. What can universities do to help students get a higher education?
When I went to college, state or federal government provided most of our funding. Here at A-State I’m told it was right at 80% in the 1980s. Since then, it has declined, and since the turn of the century, that decline has accelerated. Today, we receive about 40% of our budget from state and federal funding. To many people, higher education is no longer seen as the public good it once was, and I understand that. We need to make the case for why going to college, even as a private good, is crucial for long-term success. Twenty or 30 years ago, it was a given that going to college was the best way to move ahead and improve your life. These days, while some doubt it, it still is, and all the studies show education and a college degree are the best investments in yourself you can ever make. As that cost shifts from the public to individual families and students, we have to do everything we can to keep our costs in line and find as many partners in the private sector to help with expenses through scholarships and institutional support.
What’s the best leadership lesson you’ve learned?
You always get a lot more accomplished when you don’t care about who gets the credit. I love to build teams, help people pull together in order to achieve audacious goals, and celebrate their achievements. I am excited to bring this team-building and management philosophy here to Arkansas State.
What should the relationship between business and academia look like?
I like to use this example to my friends in industry. In America, universities are where the basic research is done. Who else can take the time to make fundamental breakthroughs or discoveries that might take years to find? A business or industry must have a reportable result every quarter. How can they take years to decode DNA or create nanoparticles? Now at the same time, it’s important that we are listening to business and industry, that we are finding ways we can collaborate and ways that help our students and their employees. For example, we have a major multiyear research project identifying what rice varieties work best in a warming world. Eventually, this will have a billion-dollar impact on one of our state’s top industries. Everyone likes to talk about “the demographic cliff” and how that is going to hit higher education. But it isn’t just higher education. That same drop in the number of 18- to 25-year-olds is going to hit businesses as well — and they will struggle to find new employees. The more we partner together, the more we can succeed together.
You were a political science professor. Is there any role for universities in teaching students to be decent citizens?
Oh absolutely! I’m watching it myself, and I’m hearing it from business and industry. This generation is one of the brightest, most qualified and ready, but they live in a digital world. They’ll sit at a dinner table and text each other, or they’ll be doom-scrolling through unrealistic expectations in social media. This is our new challenge as educators to work on conflict resolution skills, to encourage team building, and to provide the perspective and skills to vet information for accuracy. Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who said we have a republic “if we can keep it”? How do we do that if our citizens don’t even understand how the system operates?
What attracted you to this job?
You know, I’d never gone after a job like this before. My wife, Karen, and I have been in Arkansas for almost 30 years, and we love this state. I’d heard great things about Jonesboro, and we came over and “secret shopped” the town and campus before I applied. I know it sounds corny, but it’s like I said about what makes A-State different. I wanted to be at a place where you can do anything, but you can still know the employees, and the students. And northeast Arkansas is right on the cusp of breaking out. Where else can you have some of the world’s largest steel mills, some of the world’s largest rice production, and an agricultural industry that feeds the region and much of the country? It’s so unique, and it’s an exciting time to be here.