Provost Jim Coleman Discusses Land Grant Mission and Sings Bus Tour Blues
John Post: 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 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?
Jim Coleman: 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 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 going to make a leaf to take more carbon and light, or whether it’s going to 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.
JP: What interests you in that field?
JC: 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.
JP: Sure, so you’re obviously passionate about this research. Why higher education administration? What made you want to enter into that?
JC: 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. 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 D.C. 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.
JP: 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?
JC: 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 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.
JP: 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?
JC: (laughs) Oh, sure John! (laughs)
Got the bus tour blues.
Touring the state of Arkansas in a bus.
I got the bus tour blues…
Matt McGowan: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by local musician Ben Harris. For more information, and additional podcasts, visit researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.
JC: …touring Arkansas in a big bus.
But we learn so much about the state.
And so I’m just not gonna fuss.