When you sit down to talk to the University of Arkansas J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences dean about his remarkable career, two things quickly become apparent. The first is that Todd Shields' contributions to the UA over his 25-year tenure have been wide and valuable. The second is that Shields' characteristic humility usually keeps him from publicly acknowledging the scope of those contributions.
"Todd is a visionary -- he's a futurist," says Shields' wife, Karen.
"I wouldn't say I'm a visionary -- but I am very focused on the future," says Shields.
The husband-and-wife duo are chatting about Shields' quarter-of-a-century service to the UA in his fifth-floor Old Main office. The space is quietly elegant and comfortable, with windows on two sides that allow Shields a crackerjack view of both the UA campus as well as the Boston Mountains, off in the distance. The two are going out to dinner in a bit, hoping that diversion will help take their minds off the fact that they are now, officially, empty nesters: Their younger child, Dane, has moved to St. Louis to attend the Anheuser Busch training program ("I laugh that he's in beer school," cracks Shields. "What 22-year-old wouldn't love that?"). The family of four -- you might know their beautiful and accomplished daughter Savvy as 2017's Miss America -- are unusually close, and speak every day, at least by text, so Shields and Karen are struggling with the fact that their last child has left home. Shields says he's reminded of "that funny line from the Indiana Jones movies -- 'You left, just when you were becoming interesting.' -- But it's true. As they grew up, we were just fascinated by them as people."
Both Shields and Karen are easy and gracious conversationalists, although, right now, Karen is running into an all-too-familiar problem: It's difficult to tout Shields' career successes with him in the same room.
"I am very much about, 'What's the next step, and how do we get there? And what will we do?'" Shields continues. "I just can't stop thinking about that."
Behind him, Karen pulls a face that seems to say, 'Yes, that's what we call a visionary.'
And after considering the evidence contained in Shields' extensive curriculum vitae, it's difficult to argue Karen's point. Shields has held five administrative posts at the UA and taught political science for nearly two decades. He was thrice the recipient of the Chi Omega Outstanding Teacher of the Year award, as well as the 1997 recipient of the Greek Council's Teaching Excellence Award. He has garnered millions and millions of dollars in grants and support for the UA, including a $2.5 million Congressional endowment for the Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society, which -- by the way -- Shields founded. Shields somehow also co-authored three books and nearly 40 articles, edited six books and contributed chapters to 10. He's currently leading an initiative to more heavily link the internationally revered Fulbright Scholar Program to its birthplace of Arkansas, an effort that could elevate the state on the world stage.
The evidence is in, ladies and gentlemen, and, though he may not like the pronouncement, Todd Shields is, probably, most likely, a visionary.
"But he's not a self-promoter," says Karen in a phone conversation, later. "He's an other promoter. I think he does a really good job of finding the best in people and encouraging them -- because he knows that he's only as successful as the team he surrounds himself with."
First, the passion
It was almost a fluke that led Shields to his passion: He was a computer science major when he signed up for an advanced government class his junior year of college. It was the first time what he was learning leapt off the page and seemed relevant in the larger world around him.
"Computer science, particularly in the 1980s, was very abstract and was very systems oriented and very theoretical in many ways -- and political science was just so real," he says. "We were talking about the death penalty and war -- 'Is it ever justified? Is it ethical?" -- and we were talking about abortion. We were talking about poverty and 'How do you fix that?' And I just said, 'Oh my gosh, these people are trying to change the world.'"
Shields says it was the academic route -- rather than running for office -- that immediately appealed to him.
"I believe politics is absolutely everywhere, whether we're talking a high school or a university or the government or a corporation," he says. "I felt like the problems that political scientists were addressing were so real. I saw that, not only could I influence an individual student, but the things that I was researching and writing about could [also] have an influence on policy for a state or multiple states. And so that relevance was really attractive."
By his senior year in college, he had started dating Karen. The two initially met at a freshman orientation meeting, where, upon first sight of the striking California beauty, Shields made a prediction to his soon-to-be roommate.
"I saw Karen, and I said, 'Oh my God, I'm in love, I'm going to marry that girl.' And he said, 'You have no prayer, no chance at all.' I always make a joke that there's a fine line between stalking and being persistent, and I navigated it pretty well for about four years until we finally went on a date."
UA Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Shields visits with Debbie Power, administrative specialist, Monday Aug. 16, 2019.
The two married right out of college and headed off to graduate school at the University of Kentucky. He finished both the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in just four years, studying year-round, and received an offer of employment from the University of Arkansas when he graduated in 1994. The Razorbacks had just won the NCAA championship, Bill Clinton was president and Fayetteville, says Shields, seemed like the epicenter of all that was exciting in the country at the time.
"Being a political science professor in the 1990s, when the president is from the state [you're teaching in] was just perfect timing in some ways," he says. "Teaching American government in particular, we had state examples and national examples that really engaged the students a lot. It was, in some ways, an idyllic time to be an assistant professor in political science. And the state has provided so many opportunities: In 1997, Sen. David Pryor had just left the Senate and wanted to teach classes and came back to the political science department and said, 'Would anybody co-teach a class with me?' And I'm saying, 'Oh my gosh, me!' So I actually got to teach a class with Senator Pryor three times. I know political science professors in other states whose senators don't even really know them, let alone interact with them. So it was just fantastic, for so many different reasons."
Shields took to teaching right away, ultimately winning more than a half-dozen awards for his skill in the classroom.
"The first time I became aware of Dean Shields was through my daughter, Shannon," says US Sen. John Boozman. "She was attending the University of Arkansas, and she took a couple of classes under him and came home one day talking about this teacher that she absolutely loved and thought was tremendous, and it was Dean Shields. I think that had a lot of influence on her in regards to her seeking studies in public administration. He was someone that made a big impression on her, and, through the years, I've had a number of students that have come to me and told me that he was one of their favorite teachers."
"When you look at his impact on students that have passed through his classroom or the programs he's supported -- that's a good way to measure the success of a person's life, and he has excelled in positive impacts on the lives of the students," says Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
By 2001, Shields was chairman of the Department of Political Science and had been tapped as the associate director of the J. William Fulbright Institute of International Relations, where he served for eight years. That post was quickly followed by a stint as the interim associate dean for the President William J. Clinton School of Public Service and as dean for the Graduate School and International Education -- the positions even overlapped for a time.
"I make the joke that I can't keep a job," says Shields, but, in truth, the UA was sending him where they needed him most.
"I think that, in every position Todd has taken at the university, there has been something that needs to be untangled, and he jumps in and solves the problem and builds back up the positive culture, the team culture," notes Karen. "He is a charismatic servant leader. I think that unique combination, along with his devotion and expertise within the University, is what identifies him as someone that can articulate vision and inspire change.He turns things around to, 'We're all in this together.' That's how things move forward."
Now, the nation
Shields had started honing in on Southern politics as an interest of particular focus after he had been in Arkansas for a few years, and, out of that interest, the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society was born.
"In 1999, [noted UA professor and political figure] Diane Blair was being inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame, and I had this crazy idea that we should have a center looking at Southern politics named after her," remembers Shields -- Southern politics, he adds, because that subject was of particular importance in the trajectory of the country's political direction. "From the historians and political scientists that study the states, many parts of the United States have been stable -- it's the South that's been changing so dramatically. And when everything else is stable, and the South is changing, the South is driving what's happening across the country. We saw that happening here in Arkansas. You have a statesman like Fulbright, with a worldwide program that has had 400,000 live together and share cultural experiences, [and] David Pryor and Dale Bumpers and Mike Huckabee and Bill and Hillary Clinton and so many political figures that make you ask, 'How does a state this small produce such amazing political influence, as well as corporate influence worldwide?' Such a small area with such a worldwide impact was something that I really felt like a center here should chronicle, [that] we should talk about what's happening here.
"And we've been doing lots of studies," he adds of the center's research work. "I love it when we collect data that Stanford and Harvard and others don't have. They call us for it. I love that we are able to look at issues, trying to, hopefully, make life better for people."
By the time Shields took on the role as interim dean in 2013, he had ample administrative experience. Despite that, though, he looks at you as though you're touched in the head when you ask if there was much of a learning curve in his first few years on the job.
"I had a huge learning curve -- are you kidding me?" he says, eyes wide. "I made so many crazy mistakes. So yes, there was a massive learning curve. But I have been very fortunate to always have great people around me. I'm a person that wants to work with a team, all of us on the same page, going in the right direction, where we're excited. That's the kind of team that I've been blessed and grateful to be a part of."
And it takes a team: He manages nearly 1,700 faculty, teaching and research assistants and staff. His budget oversight includes a $70 million instructional budget and a $17 million research budget, and he also administers an endowment of $123 million in over 800 accounts.
"When I first got here, the college was not running in the black," he says. "We were hiring people to keep up with the growth, but we weren't necessarily funding them. So there were some financial issues, and there were some morale issues. There really wasn't a 'Here's where we're going' [vision], like 'We want to have a nationally ranked school of art' or 'We want to be the Mecca of art in America' -- we didn't have any bold visions like that." In 2017, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation presented the UA with a $120 million gift -- the largest amount ever given to an American university's art department -- that, says a UA press release, "will help position the School of Art as a center of excellence in art education, art history, graphic design and studio art curriculum."
UA Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Professor of Social Work Yvette Murphy-Erby says that Shields' "leadership in transitioning the UA Department of Art to the School of Art and leading the development of an art district corridor" are accomplishments that stand out the most over Shields' 25 years at the university. "Together, these two efforts will transform our region and are well positioned for international acclaim."
That sort of bold vision, says Shields, "is probably the thing I'm most proud of. The college is just filled with really fascinating, highly accomplished people and, when you're working with them, you realize there's really nothing that they can't accomplish."
"The combination of his ability to envision, inspire and engage, his vast, yet in-depth knowledge of the assets and needs of our campus, region and state, and his ability to form and maintain relationships with a variety of people, is perhaps the magic sauce behind the savviness of his leadership ability," says Murphy-Erby.
Shields has been in Fayetteville for close to half of his life now and has raised a family here. He clearly remains deeply in love with his adopted hometown.
"[I realized], there are people here who could go anywhere they wanted to, but because this region has been so dynamic, and the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas is so great, we benefit with people who we otherwise might lose," he says. "So when other schools come around and try to pick my best physicists or my best poets, or the best artists or biologists, they're hesitant to go because it's such a dynamic place. We compete. We fight above our weight class, just because we have such great people here. I could go to every department in Fulbright College, and I could show you five or six people that could raise their hands and go anywhere they want to. It's really amazing."
Next, the world
His pride -- in state, in school, in region -- was the primary motivating factor behind his recent initiative to more closely link the state of Arkansas -- and specifically the UA -- with the world renowned Fulbright Scholars Program.
"When I would go around the world and recruit people [for International Studies], they knew Walmart, and they knew Bill Clinton, and they knew somebody in their family or their friends who'd had their life changed by the Fulbright Exchange Program," he says. "There are 170 countries in the world that participate in the Fulbright Exchange Program and 8,000 new people every year -- 4,000 Americans going abroad and 4,000 international students coming to the United States. And that has been going on since 1946. There are Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Genius Award winners -- it's just an amazing group of people. And it's been a goal of mine to make sure that [the Fulbright program is linked to Arkansas as] the Rhodes Scholar Program is tied to Oxford. This is something bigger than that, and it's tied to not only this campus, this college, but [also] this state."
"I think it's exactly what is needed," says Gov. Hutchinson of Shields' efforts. "As I travel overseas, whenever I try to talk to someone foreign about Arkansas, they might not understand the history of our state, so many times I will talk about the Fulbright Scholars Program, which our foreign colleagues are very familiar with. I'll say, 'Senator Fulbright, who started this program, was from Arkansas,' and that shows you it's so important to have the program identified with Arkansas. I applaud the dean's efforts in that regard."
"Anything we can do to put this program to the forefront and make people aware that it actually comes from an Arkansas program is, I think, very valuable," says Sen. Boozman. "It's one of the tools that we have where we're actually able to change the world through personal relationships. I'm very supportive of the program, and I appreciate he and many others trying to think outside the box a little so that we can not only go forward with it, but [also] improve it."
With Shields accomplishments and resume, it's a pretty safe bet that he could explore other options in academia, maybe take a position at a larger school, in a more urban, fast-paced city. But, he says, there's nothing that could sway him away from the place that has become his home over the past 25 years.
"In my career, when we've even thought about, 'Well, should we look at some other place?', any place we've gone -- whether it's the institution, the university or the region -- we've just never seen any place that has the kind of trajectory that Northwest Arkansas and the University of Arkansas does," he says emphatically. "It's just been so, so fantastic. We love the direction it's going in, and we always have."
Colleagues say that love and loyalty is evident. Scott Varady, now the executive director/general counsel for the Razorback Foundation, says that when he was working with the UA Office of General Counsel, Shields "would often assist us in reviewing data, statistics, and he would work tirelessly -- he would grind out stuff for us until one, two in the morning to assist us relative to a particular case or matter. That kind of sacrifice is impressive -- it's not a 9-5 thing for him. He's totally committed to the University of Arkansas. He believes in the students. Having grown up in this state, and having attended the University -- I love it when there are people who come here and love our students and respect them and want to see them succeed."
"For Todd, it's always been a labor of love," concludes Karen.
Through Others’ Eyes
“I think Dean Shields is a very good communicator. He’s made a very positive impression on the young people who have come through his classes. He’s impacted them in a very favorable way. He really is the definition of a servant leader — he is actively engaged, and I’ve just been really impressed with him for a long time.” — Sen. John Boozman
“I know his reputation, and that it has propelled him to success and a series of promotions, because others recognized his talent in the classroom and also his ability to bring partners together and manage larger enterprises. Through the course of the years, he’s done so much, from the Blair Center to being director of large educational centers like the Clinton School. It’s been very impressive, what he’s been able to do.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson
“As an associate dean, I attended many meetings with Dean Shields and often wondered, ‘How can one person speak so in-depth and with such clarity and passion about so many different things?’ Dean Shields has served in a variety of administrative leadership positions during his 25-year tenure at the U of A. Through these experiences, he has developed an expanded network. He is one of the most connected individuals in our state, not only in terms of people but also in terms of systems and the ways in which they operate.” —Yvette Murphy-Erby
“He does a really good job of seeing what’s unique to Arkansas and building on that. Arkansas is so special — we’ve been here 25 years and Todd has such a heart for the university, the Fulbright legacy, the Pryor Center, the Clinton School, the Blair Center for Southern Politics, Crystal Bridges … building on those things that really make this place special so Arkansas can wave their flag in pride that, ‘Hey! We have this here!’” — Karen Shields
“When you’re a University attorney, you have a unique perspective in how you see people. I took Ethics in law school and they taught us that, when you’re a lawyer, you’re not just a lawyer — sometimes, you’re the priest, the psychologist, the social worker; there are so many aspects to the world from that perspective. You see people in their most authentic way, and he’s every bit as genuine and authentic as he appears to be.” — Scott Varady
NAN Profiles on 09/08/2019
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