Preparing for Adventure: Tracie Woidtke

Preparing for Adventure: Tracie Woidtke

Tracie Woidtke was on the faculty at Texas A&M University when the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, opened the Neel Corporate Governance Center in 2003. Jim Wansley, head of the Department of Finance, reached out to Woidtke to see if she’d be interested in a new faculty position they were creating.

“I agreed to meet with founding members of the CGC and the finance faculty,” she says. “I felt it was a very good fit for my research interests.” Woidtke and her husband, Shane, soon relocated to Knoxville with their two young children, Skyler and Knox. “When they were old enough to start reading, my son wondered why his name was on all the buses here,” she laughs. “They were both born in Texas, and we didn’t know we’d ever live here, so his name is a coincidence.”

Diving into her work at the college, Woidtke became Ph.D. program director for the finance department at the Haslam College of Business and worked to improve the doctoral program while recruiting high-quality faculty. In January 2016, Woidtke was named the new department head when Wansley stepped down after more than twenty years of service. “Our research productivity has definitely been improving, and I think the whole department is excited about the trajectory,” she says. “I want to continue to support that and take it to the next level. I also want to focus a little more on undergraduates, internships and placements.”

Woidtke’s research has appeared in numerous accounting and finance journals, and her interests focus on corporate governance issues with public policy implications. “I’m particularly interested in institutional investors that target firms when they’re unhappy with firm performance,” she says. “I analyze whether that kind of shareholder activism actually makes a difference, or do these shareholders have their own private agenda?”

When she’s not researching or teaching, Woidtke strikes out with her family on adventures. “We’ve been zip lining over an alligator-infested lake, visited the pyramids in Egypt and gone paragliding together in Italy.” Woidtke and her husband own a Jeep Rubicon, which they often use for off-road family outings.

Woidtke hopes her children will embrace life’s adventures, whether they include traveling to other countries, trying a new sport, or going forward where others turn back. “We don’t want our kids to be anxious and afraid to attempt new things or forge their own path,” she says. “We try to teach them to think through a situation from different angles and prepare for it. If you’re well prepared, you can do things that appear to be daunting at first glance and have fun along the way without being reckless. Some of life’s most memorable moments are from taking the road less traveled.”

Economics of Ecosystems: Charles Sims

Economics of Ecosystems: Charles Sims

Is nature truly priceless? Perhaps so, but you can put a monetary value on it. Food, fuel, shelter and myriad other commodities are sourced from the natural world, and some economists, including one at the Haslam College of Business, are attempting to measure this natural capital in concrete, capitalistic terms.

A study published by Nature Climate Change in June 2014 estimated the total, global value of natural capital to be $40 trillion. While measuring benefits like medicines, building materials and drinking water might be fairly straightforward, economists also are attempting to measure the value of natural services like carbon absorption in forests and natural flood defenses from wetlands.

“An ecosystem is a lot like an economy,” says Charles Sims, an assistant professor at Haslam studying environment and resource economics. “Society may value something that nature produces like plants for medicine or trees for lumber. But nature can’t produce these things without a healthy ecosystem. Much like radiators and motherboards have value because they go into the production of cars and computers, an ecosystem has value because it supports the production of things society values.”

Much of Sims’s work focuses on how climate change affects natural capital, a key example of which being the forest industry. Climate change has intensified the effects of natural disturbances like fires and insect infestation in recent years, causing threats to the tourism and timber industries. Sims’s research demonstrates that when managed correctly, a business and the ecosystem in which it functions can bolster each other.

“The Forest Service began limiting timber harvesting and ramping up fire suppression thirty to forty years ago in an effort to preserve forests for things like wildlife habitat and recreation,” Sims says. “Unfortunately, we don’t see more trees in many of the western forests. Climate-amplified natural disturbances have replaced the man-made ones.”

However, intervention via strategic timber harvesting could actually mitigate the effect of climate change in these forests and result in a net gain of trees.

“Fire suppression and decreased timber harvesting create denser forests,” says Sims. “That means less frequent, but more intense, uncontrollable fires and habitats rife for insects to spread. If timber companies are allowed to strategically harvest trees, especially in hot spots of insect infestation, the rest of the forest would be better protected against these climate change-amplified disturbances.”

One of Sims’s studies showed that a hot spot harvesting strategy could save 17 million trees (more than 5 percent of the study region) and increase the forest by an area approximately the size of Denver, Colorado.

E.F. Schumacher first introduced the concept of natural capital in his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, but it has gained momentum in recent years. November 2015 saw a world forum on natural capital, and nearly 200 non-governmental organizations and corporations have joined the Natural Capital Protocol, calling for a worldwide consistency in measurement of natural capital.

The protocol seeks to transform business operations by increasing understanding of their impacts and dependencies on natural capital. This balance of economics and ecosystems grounds Sims’s studies as well.

“As economists, we are interested in how capital and labor combine to produce things society values,” Sims says. “Engineers help us understand the relationships between people and physical capital. By working with natural scientists, I can accurately capture natural capital’s role in this relationship and put a more accurate value on ecosystem goods and services that support industries. Economic theory helps us make sense of how ecosystem changes impact our lives, and that is going to become increasingly important in the years ahead.”

Images of Change: Anne Smith

Images of Change: Anne Smith

Images communicate in ways that words cannot. Anne Smith, head of the Department of Management at the Haslam College of Business, sees photography as a way to observe management styles.

“I’m very interested in how to use images in the field, getting organizational members to take pictures and talk about them,” says Smith. “For three years, I taught a first-year studies course about photography and making sense of transition. I enjoyed that more than almost anything else I’ve done.”

Smith’s freshman students used photography to explore their transition to campus life. “We looked at finding comfort, missing home, becoming involved and ultimately adjusting to the college routine,” Smith explains. To help students develop their photography skills and find angles to express their thoughts, Smith led them on a behind-the-scenes tour of campus. “I took them to all the out of the way places around campus,” she says. “We went inside the old library, the alumni house, McClung Museum and to the top floor of the law school, where there’s a collection of platinum records on display.”

While Smith’s chief enjoyment of the class came from connecting with students, she had a secondary purpose. “It’s a research project,” she says. “I am interested in images and what they say, and I want to see if what happened in the first semester set the path for those students.” Every fall, she talks to past students to track their progress. About 80 percent of her last class chose to participate in follow-up interviews. “It’s a meaningful project for me. It’s important because it ties into the metrics of the university and our ability to retain students.”

Smith has published more than twenty papers in academic journals. While she prefers fieldwork, stories and images to surveys and archival databases, Smith stresses that qualitative research is tricky. “Europeans and Canadians tend to do more qualitative research as compared to American management scholars,” she says. “Qualitative is seen as a risky research strategy because of the investment in fieldwork and the substantial time figuring out the story and theoretical contributions. Publishing qualitative studies in top journals usually takes many, many years.”

When she’s not finding new ways to connect and research, Smith serves as associate editor of qualitative submissions of Organizational Methods Journal and chair of the Strategizing Activities and Practices Interest Group in the Academy of Management. In 2015, she was named department head when former department head Terry Leap returned to teaching. “I’ve never aspired to administration,” she confesses. “I’m here because I think I’m the right person at the right time. For me, it’s about the department. I’m just here to orchestrate it.”