Arkansas Tech University in Russellville will welcome a new dean for its business college on July 1, as it prepares to introduce a new MBA program this fall.
Lisa Toms previously served as dean of the Rankin College of Business at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia the last 10 years. There, she designed and implemented that school’s MBA program. Introduced in fall 2008, the program now enrolls an average of 65 to 80 students per semester.
Toms is looking forward to “taking another program and seeing how we can make it better,” she said, and expects there to be differences between her work at SAU and her role at ATU. “I didn’t design this program. I’ll be walking into a program that’s already been designed.”
Another difference between the two jobs is the breadth of industry in the surrounding community. Where Magnolia is limited in that capacity, Russellville has more job opportunities, more businesses. Toms looks forward to building relationships with businesses, assessing their needs of and developing curriculum to address them, she said.
She told the ATU board upfront: “I’m an idea person. If you want things to stay status quo, I’m not your person. There’s always a better way to do things,” Toms said. “Part of it’s my personality. I was raised by a very strong mother and was taught to be independent and think for myself. The words, ‘If everybody was jumping off a bridge …’ were often heard in my house.
She earned a reputation for holding fast to standards and improving processes early in her career. After finishing her undergraduate degree in finance at SAU in 1991, she was hired as an internal auditor by the school. While not a licensed accountant, “they knew me well enough to know that I would be a bulldog in finding processes that were not doing as well as they should,” Toms said, adding she also had mentors who conducted legislative audits.
Toms later became institutional research officer for the school while studying for her MBA at night school at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, La. She graduated that program in 1995 and began teaching as an adjunct professor, going full-time in 1998.
She was offered a fellowship at Louisiana Tech, so she went back to get her doctorate. In 2005 she became finance department chair and in 2007 dean of the school of business. She was assigned the task of starting an MBA program by SAU’s then-President David Rankin.
“The first challenge Dr. Rankin gave me was to start an MBA. That was my entire list of instructions,” she said.
She recalled that while she was putting together the program, the vetting process was especially stringent due to of a changeover in the leadership at the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, she said. The program had to get a greenlight from the department’s coordinating board, in addition to the Higher Learning Commission, and because the process took longer than expected, Toms said there was no time to advertise the new program before it started.
Through word of mouth, 12 students enrolled the first semester, and the class doubled in size by spring and then again in fall 2009. By that spring there were 60 students, Toms said. Kim Bloss, dean of the graduate school, “gave me a lot of instructions and guidance,” Toms said.
Bloss said Toms refreshed and updated the program often at SAU.
“She continually changed it as she would see things that needed to be changed. A good dean looks for ways to improve programs through new tracks, and staying abreast of what is happening in the field. That’s why we added the supply chain management and entrepreneurship tracks to the program,” Bloss said.
When asked the greatest lesson she has learned in her career, Toms said: “Without a doubt, if two heads are better than one, five are better than two. There’s always someone with a better idea. If you get a good group of bright people together, they’re going to have better solutions.”
She recommends putting trust in subordinates, “encouraging them to take responsibility for their work and empowering them to do a better job. … It is the reason we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s by no means attributable to me, but all of us working together.”