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New Arkansas State chancellor wants students to ‘find their passion and fulfill what they can become’

Shields wants to share it there, too by Ryan Anderson | November 26, 2022 at 8:20 a.m.
Arkansas State Chancellor Todd Shields pauses on the Jonesboro campus earlier this month. Among the goals Shields lists for ASU is helping students “find their passion and fulfill what they can become.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

JONESBORO -- Always a gifted math student, Todd Shields was an engineering major until one class -- and one professor -- "changed the direction of my life."

In a general education political science course with professor Augustus "Gus" Jones, the class discussed not only American government, but current issues, and "I was sad when the bell rang, because class was over," said Shields, who earned his bachelor's degree in political science and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Miami University in Ohio. That "got me more excited" than bridge construction, and when Jones told Shields he ought to consider a career as a professor, the future of Shields unfurled in front of him like a banner.

"That's what I want to do for students, help them find their passion and fulfill what they can become," said Shields, who was hired as Arkansas State University's chancellor in July and officially began his duties Aug. 15. Assisting "underrepresented and first-generation college students has been my wheelhouse, because you're not just educating one person [with those students], but impacting generations to come."

Shields, 54, joined the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in 1994 as an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and became dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences in 2014 after starting a year earlier as interim dean. As dean, Shields oversaw the creation and establishment of the university's School of Art after an unprecedented gift of $120 million from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation that expanded the scope of the university's art department.

"I was never someone applying for other jobs -- this [chancellor role] was the first one I really went after" -- and he was attracted to the position for several reasons, he said. For example, though he didn't know Arkansas State University System President Chuck Welch well, they shared some common mentors who "all spoke very highly of him."

Their recommendations have proved true as Shields has watched -- and learned from -- Welch, he said. "He's able to make connections with anyone and everyone to get things done."

Welch appreciates that Shields has not attempted to make wholesale changes at ASU in "knee-jerk" fashion, but, rather, has "really tried to understand why we do things a certain way" before recommending any alterations.

Shields has also spoken to numerous members of the university community to find out what they feel can be improved -- and what is already working very well -- an approach that has garnered "an outstanding response from campus members," Welch said. "They like how easy he is to talk to, that he really listens, and that he responds to their concerns."

Though educating students in a classroom setting "is my first love -- and I will get back into teaching, but I didn't think I could take that on in my first year as chancellor" -- Shields has similar appreciation for working alongside faculty, he said. "I love making teams work well together and promoting the amazing work we're doing here to change lives."

Shields succeeded Kelly Damphousse, who left the chancellor's post to become president of Texas State University. Damphousse joined A-State on July 1, 2017, after working for 20 years as a professor and later a dean at the University of Oklahoma.

Nearly 50 candidates were considered to become Damphousse's successor, but Shields was the choice "across the board" by Welch, ASU System trustees and the search committee, Welch said. "We felt he presented the full package of experience, knowledge of the state -- he understands the politics of Arkansas and knows the major players -- a background in teaching, research and fundraising, and he's just a very affable and approachable individual."

GROWTH POTENTIAL

Northeast Arkansas has the potential to grow in a similar fashion to the manner Northwest Arkansas has over the past couple of decades, Shields believes. "The cities here see themselves as a region, and there's so much food and steel production here, plus agriculture and health care."

"Our future is bright, [and Shields'] enthusiasm is not confined to campus," said Mark Young, president and CEO of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce. "His energy and positive outlook have already assisted him in making personal and professional connections throughout the region."

The campus is well-positioned geographically to grow and add students, Shields said. "We have 4,000 acres here."

"We could easily have another 2,000 students on campus," seconded Bill Smith, A-State's chief communications officer. "We have the capacity."

In September, ASU reported a 2.4% increase in enrollment, at 14,109 students -- the second-highest figure in university history -- compared with last fall's estimate of 13,772, according to the ASU System. A-State's highest enrollment was in the fall of 2017, at 14,144 students.

First-time international students at Arkansas State are up 5% this year, roughly 100 more students are living on campus this year than last, and the university has its second-best first-to-second-year fall retention rate at 77.6%, according to the ASU System. A-State enrollment figures include the university's campus in Mexico, which has a headcount of 918 this fall, up from 894 students at Campus Queretaro last fall.

Shields appreciates A-State's "international vision," he said. The Queretaro campus , for example, "is a great partnership, [where] real-elite students get dual [Mexican and American] degrees, and it costs A-State nothing."

The enrollment at Campus Queretaro is "extraordinary," especially because students -- and their families -- pay tuition, while public college is free in Mexico, Smith said. "It's an American college experience, with dorms and teaching in English."

'FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE AROUND'

In Fayetteville, Shields was also dean of the Graduate School and International Education, and he served as a leader for Fayetteville's Rome Center, a campus hub in the Italian capital. He was the founding director of the interdisciplinary research center at the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and served as associate dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

Shields' daughter, Savvy, a former Miss America, made several visits to Jonesboro and told her father "'they are the friendliest people around,' but she undersold it," Shields said. When Shields and his wife, Karen, visited the campus, "nobody knew who we were, but everyone wanted to talk to us," and the same was true at Jonesboro coffee shops, restaurants and their hotel.

"This community loves A-State, and there's no separation between" the university and the community, he said. "I was immediately invited to join the" local Chamber of Commerce and several other community, business and civic bodies, as well as partnering with Jonesboro's mayor on projects, because "this community is so tight, welcoming and connected."

Growing up, Shields was rarely in one community long enough to establish any roots, as he was born in New Jersey shortly before his father shipped off to Vietnam, he said. The family then moved all around the country during his father's military career -- "I went to four different high schools" -- and that itinerant lifestyle continued when his father went to work for IBM.

Perhaps because of his [and her] peripatetic upbringings, he and his wife were eager to "put down roots" -- albeit "perhaps subconsciously" -- in Arkansas when they moved to Fayetteville in the mid-90s, he said. Remaining in one place for decades led to many lasting relationships, as "our kids" -- Savvy and Dane, both now in their 20s -- "still have friends they made in kindergarten."

Leaving Arkansas never appealed to Shields or his wife of 31 years.

"Wherever we'd go, for conferences or vacations, we were always glad to get back home to Arkansas," he said. "We love the state."

Shields and his wife moved to Fayetteville when the city, region, and University of Arkansas were all smaller, he said. "I really enjoyed teaching students who didn't know they were great, yet, but were, and helping them realize that, rather than teaching students who already knew they were great."

As Fayetteville, Northwest Arkansas, and the university -- which has roughly doubled in enrollment over the past quarter century -- grew, Shields began to feel "a step removed from students," he said. Frustrations mounted as he moved into administration, where "the bureaucracy was growing, and getting past that could be difficult at times."

Welch is motivated to solve problems, and problem solving is the ethos of the ASU System, Shields said. "The ASU System functions as a system, cooperating to solve problems."

"I'm a problem-solver, too -- I like to build a team and fix a problem -- and I don't care who gets credit," said Shields, who has a master's degree and doctorate in political science from the University of Kentucky. "I get excited when I can help solve a problem."

"We knew of each other -- I was actually president of the student body when [Shields] came to the university in 1994 -- but we didn't really know each other," Welch said. However, "when I talked to mentors of mine over the years who also knew him, they told me we needed to find a way to work together, because we have a lot in common."

"We're able to talk through any issues, which I feel makes for a stronger working environment, and that's a common leadership philosophy we share," Welch said. "The way he approaches matters, it's not all about him, it's just about getting to the right solution."

Shields will earn $450,000 annually as part of an initial three-year agreement, and he's eligible to earn $50,000 annually in incentive-based deferred compensation, according to his offer letter. Each year, a satisfactory evaluation of Shields by the president of the ASU System will result in a one-year contract extension.

The three other chancellor finalists were: Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in Louisiana until recently and a former president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock; Karen Petersen, dean of the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tulsa; and Lance Tatum, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief academic officer at Troy University in Alabama.

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

Shields is "not concerned" with A-State's rankings in "lists" -- such as the annual U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings, which has come under criticism recently in some quarters for its methodology -- because "I'm someone who looks at where a student started, and how far did we take them," he said. Some universities inflate rankings by admitting more "elite" students, but "how much did they really help that student who was already elite?"

Shields, who has co-written three books on electoral politics, does believe in cross-curricular opportunities, which he made a hallmark of his leadership tenures in the years leading to his hiring as ASU's chancellor.

When built, the Windgate Hall of Art and Innovation "will be transformational [for A-State], with art and innovation together," he said. Providing chances for disciplines -- and the students in them -- to collaborate "follows my research" into best educational practices.

The Neil Griffin College of Business, the College of Liberal Arts and Communications Department of Art + Design, and the College of Engineering and Computer Science are among the programs likely to collaborate within the Windgate Hall of Art and Innovation, following the example of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building, which opened in 2015 and also emphasizes collaboration among multiple areas of study, Smith said. Shields "was keen on that -- bringing people together -- at UA," and said he sees opportunities for that here.

Among his goals as chancellor is to initiate an ambitious capital campaign, funds from which would be used for endowed chairs to attract and retain quality faculty, renovate and/or construct named buildings, and add scholarships for students in need.

Shields has already proved to be "a very, very strong fundraiser," which is an area for "development" at ASU, and a capital campaign will likely be announced in the next year or two, Welch said. Shields "builds strong relationships," a valuable skill whether with local public schools, potential students, and their families, or with business, industry, and economic development stakeholders.

"We really feel there's great potential to build strong links between the university, the community, and business and industry, and the university can play a leading role," Welch said. "We want to serve this Delta region and address the challenges here."

ASU remains "an affordable" option, which is critical because so many first-generation college students and students from historically underrepresented groups -- more than 40% of ASU students are considered "low income" -- are part of the student body, Shields said. A-State "is large enough that it has everything you can get" from a university located in Austin, Texas, New York City, or Los Angeles, but the cost of living is significantly lower, "and it's small enough where you'll be taught by your professors, they'll know your name, and you'll know them, [so] you feel you belong here."

Tuition -- the average cost for tuition and fees at ASU for Arkansans is roughly $9,000 annually -- "here is not that high, and there are basically no fees," he said. "I think fees are like $700, and we don't hide fees, either, like a lot of other schools do."

Shields is "a scholar," but also a fan -- and booster-- of athletics, and "sports are super important," he said. For example, he recently carpooled with Red Wolves head football coach Butch Jones to a meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club, which gave them a chance to discuss the program and get to know one another better.

The "enrollment cliff" -- a notable drop-off in potential college students over the next decade due to the country's birth rate decline -- will affect some higher education institutions more than others, and Shields believes A-State is in an ideal position to weather the storm.

Arkansas State already has roughly 5,000 online students, and "that is the future," he said. "No, 18-year-olds coming to campus for four years is never going away, but more people who are older will be looking to colleges" for degrees and certifications, and "these are people with families, so they're not going to live on campus for four years."

The "virtual world" may also play a more prominent role in higher education, and "we're going to have our first virtual class next year, which I'm excited about," he said. "I can see a class one day where you put on Oculus [virtual reality headsets] and have a 'conversation' with" America's Founding Fathers about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, for example.

ASU should have a deep reservoir to draw from for "traditional" students, too, as the population of Jonesboro -- Jonesboro's population jumped by more than 10,000, to over 78,000, from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- and northeast Arkansas continues to climb, he said. A-State is well known for its popular nursing, education, and agriculture programs, each of which matches workforce needs in the area and region.

ASU "is an economic driver in Jonesboro and the region," Young said. "From day one, Shields has understood that relationship and how the university and the city can excel together. We are excited about his leadership and look forward to he and Karen being a big part of the community."

For Shields, "success" as chancellor can be distilled down to four points, he said. "Success looks like growth -- but not too big, an endowment that funds the research we need to do, scholarships for students who can't afford [ASU], and a place where everyone wants to be because they're valued here."


  photo  “I love making teams work well together and promoting the amazing work we’re doing here to change lives,” Arkansas State University Chancellor Todd Shields said in an interview in his office on Nov. 1. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
 
 


Print Headline: Class led to passion for ASU’s new chief

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