Colleagues reflect on Waller’s legacy as Walton College dean

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,706 views 

Matt Waller

Matt Waller is in his eighth year as dean of the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business. In a recent interview with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, he offered his perspective on that term, revealing some thought processes behind his decision to resign.

“If you look at the top 50 public business schools, I think the average tenure is 3.5 years for a business school dean,” he said. “It’s a very time-consuming job [with] events almost every night, the fundraising objectives. But I loved it. I have loved the community of Northwest Arkansas. It’s been wonderful.”

Waller is leaving the job, but he’s not leaving campus. On March 1, he announced his plans to return to the classroom this fall. Effective Aug. 14, he’ll transition from the dean’s job to a supply chain management professor at the UA.

“We can’t wait for him to return to the [supply chain] department he founded,” department chair Brian Fugate said. He was referring to students and faculty. “He’s been influencing my career since I met him as a Ph.D. student 20 years ago.”

Waller, 58, has been a Walton College teacher, researcher and administrator for nearly three decades since coming to Fayetteville as a visiting assistant professor in 1994. He became a full professor in August 2007 and later held various positions, including director of its Executive M.B.A.-China program in 2008-2009. Waller became chair of the supply chain management department when it was established in July 2011. He was also interim associate dean for executive education before becoming interim Walton College dean in July 2015 after Eli Jones left to become dean of his alma mater, the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. Waller also held the Garrison Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Management.

“I was a professor for most of my career,” said Waller, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration summa cum laude from the University of Missouri, and a master’s and doctorate from Pennsylvania State University. “I miss being a professor. I look forward to teaching and research.”

Others share Waller’s anticipation. Brent Williams, associate dean for strategy and growth initiatives at Walton College who holds the Garrison Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Management, said Waller’s impact in the classroom could not be understated.

“I am thrilled that he will return to our faculty,” he said. “He is a gifted teacher and one of the world’s leading supply chain management researchers. While his role may be different in the future, he will continue to make an outsized impact on Walton College.”

Waller is midway through a second five-year appointment as dean, which started July 1, 2021. That’s why some may have been surprised at the timing of his departure. He addressed several rumors he’d had to tamp down following his announcement.

“Some people [said] I was going to another university, and that’s not true,” he said. “Another rumor is that my cancer came back, and thank God, that’s not true.”

In January 2017, Waller received a colorectal cancer diagnosis. He started daily chemotherapy and radiation treatments the following month. He’s now cancer-free.

“It is true that I said if [cancer] came back, I would resign,” he said. “But, it hasn’t. I feel fine.”

Waller also rejected speculation that his return to the faculty is related to the UA’s new chancellor. The University of Arkansas System board of trustees appointed Charles Robinson to the job this past fall. Robinson, previously the provost and executive vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at the UA, was interim chancellor since Aug. 16, 2021.

Waller was among 20 applicants for the chancellor’s job last summer. He was not one of the four finalists.

“Some people thought that Charles didn’t want me around because I had competed with him for the chancellor’s job, but he and I actually get along and work together well,” Waller said. “I have known him for many years.”

History will look favorably on Waller’s tenure as Walton College dean as a high-growth period. Undergraduate enrollment jumped 42% from 2015 to 2022. In fact, 7,719 undergraduates enrolled in Walton College in the fall 2022 semester, making it — for the first time — the largest college on the UA campus, just ahead of Education and Health Professions.

Adam Stoverink joined Walton College in 2017 as an associate professor of management. He was appointed director of MBA programs in 2021. Stoverink said the objective numbers — fundraising, enrollment growth, business school rankings, new graduate programs added — show Waller is arguably the most impactful dean in Walton College’s history.

Still, Stoverink said being the driving force behind its growth and prominence won’t be Waller’s most significant legacy.

“It’s the culture he’s created,” he explained. “A culture of collegiality in which we all celebrate one another’s successes — in research, in the classroom, in advising, or in any other achievements our faculty and staff have enjoyed during his tenure as dean. He’s created a culture of excellence in which we strive to make the student experience the best anywhere.

“Ultimately, he’s made Walton College the premier place to work in academia.”

Fugate described Waller as a “full scholar,” meaning he operates at the intersection of leading industry, research and teaching.

“He was one of the inventors, and initial developers of continuous planning, forecasting and replenishment (CPFR) and vendor managed inventory (VMI) [concepts], both of which changed the supply chain industry forever,” Fugate said. “He is among the most cited academic researchers in the university and discipline. And he’s an amazing teacher who cares deeply about his students.”

Williams said he’s benefited from Waller’s mentorship by working alongside him for 20 years. He described Waller as a servant leader who consistently prioritizes others and their development.

“He motivates others to do their best work,” he said. “He has significantly influenced my life and taught me so much about how to lead, manage, teach and research. Like many others at Walton College, I am grateful for his leadership and mentorship. His support is unwavering. He gets joy from the success of others, and he inspires me to continue this legacy.”

In that vein, Stoverink said Waller would be his successor’s biggest supporter during and long after the transition. Terry Martin, UA provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, will gather input from Walton College faculty, staff and students regarding the process and timeline for hiring a new dean.

“Matt will certainly be missed in the dean’s suite, but I’m excited for him,” Stoverink said. “He’s given so much to the college in so many ways. It’s now time for him to choose a path that’s best for him, and I’m proud of him for making what I know was a very difficult decision. Fortunately, I know him well enough to know that he’ll leave the college in great hands.”

Waller said that with more free time, he wants to be more involved in Northwest Arkansas’ entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“There’s a lot of early-stage companies here that I am connected with in one way or another,” he said. “I’ve got some ideas about how to connect them better to the things going on here. I’ve got many ideas I really couldn’t [previously] execute from a time perspective.”

Away from campus, Waller’s entrepreneurial spirit is evident. His business experience includes being a partner and co-founder of Bentonville Associates Ventures in 1996-2002 and chief strategy officer and co-founder of Mecari Technologies in 1998-2002.

Williams said Walton College had developed a collective entrepreneurial spirit through Waller’s leadership.

“I believe that will be his greatest legacy as dean,” he said. “Our faculty and staff are continually inspired and encouraged by Matt to build cutting-edge programs that meet the needs of our students and employers throughout Arkansas. And as dean, he inspires students daily to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and positively impact the world through business.”