Success Comes in Fours

A professor takes group projects to a new level with his fall colloquium

By Derek Maiolo

Jim Shephard

With Jim Shephard’s upcoming fall colloquium, “Big Problems and Bold Solutions,” the title says it all.

Drawing on lessons he has learned as a business leader, researcher, and educator, Shephard aims to teach students how to collaborate with diverse groups to handle today’s top issues — from global climate change to the lack of affordable housing in Eugene. “No matter what you do in life, you’re going to work with others and you’re going to solve problems,” he said.

A courtesy professor of law and an honors college faculty member since last fall, Shephard is charting new territory with his course. “As far as I can tell, nothing quite like it has been done — at least at the undergraduate level,” he said.

Boldness seems to epitomize Shephard’s own life as much as it does his colloquium.

Shephard graduated from the Clark Honors College in 1980 and has been a flagbearer of its interdisciplinary mentality ever since. He has labored as a fisherman, studied ancient French maritime law, served as CEO of two major companies, and is now working on a book.

Shephard did well as an undergraduate, but he did not spend much time in the classroom. He worked on a fishing boat travelling between Fort Bragg, California and Astoria.

When he wasn’t hauling in salmon and albacore tuna, he was trying to keep up with his coursework. Turning in assignments offshore was not possible before email. “The boat would come into port and I would mail the paper off,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s the professors thought that was really cool.”

Those years on the open ocean gave him a passion for seafaring ships. His most treasured book was a copy of Oxford Book of Ships and the Sea, what he described as the Wikipedia of boats.

He spent four years in college doing intensive research on the origins and the manuscripts of the Rôles d’Oléron, the first offcial maritime laws in northwestern Europe. He went on to get a graduate degree from the University of Poitiers in France and a law degree from Tulane University.

To Shephard, living such a curious, multidisciplinary lifestyle has improved his problem-solving abilities in immeasurable ways.

“I know too many people who were very successful at one thing and failed at everything else,” Shephard said. “It doesn’t work because they failed to realize they have to learn something new.”

One of his biggest problems that required a bold solution came in 2009. Shephard had just become the CEO of a French bank, Banque AIG. That same year, a financial crisis swept Europe, hitting banks especially hard. “That was really a big change in my career,” he said.

The crisis forced the bank to close. It was Shephard’s job to make sure it was done right — “and closing a bank is a very tricky thing to do,” he said.

He was in charge of hundreds of employees spread from Tokyo to London, many of whom had trouble speaking and understanding English. There were also a slew of bank regulations that varied in every country where Banque AIG operated that Shephard had to decipher. “I started having to think about how I solve problems, and how do I get a diverse group of individuals to collaborate and work together effectively,” he said.

It is that mindset, coupled with his wide interests, that inspired his newest colloquium. Students will be tasked with developing an innovative, bold solution to an unresolved problem, either in the local community or the world at large.

“ Most disruptive ideas come from people who are not specialists in that field. If you’re not a specialist in something, you’re not caught up in the paradigm that’s been created. ”

What Shephard is looking for are fixes that completely revolutionize how people approach the issue. He called such cutting-edge ideas “disruptive,” using gig economy favorites like Uber and Airbnb that have completely changed the way people travel as examples.

“I am fascinated by disruption,” he said. “I think we live in a world where disruption is becoming more frequent,” because of digital technologies.

It is inevitable that students will need to step out of their majors during the class to think up solutions to far-reaching, interdisciplinary problems — and that is just what Shephard wants. “Most disruptive ideas come from people who are not specialists in that field,” he said. “If you’re not a specialist in something, you’re not caught up in the paradigm that’s been created.”

The class will begin by breaking students into groups of four, who will work together over the term. Shephard even planned this group size to encourage more collaboration. “If you have an odd number, you can always solve a problem by voting,” he said. “If you have an even number you have to create consensus by persuasion.”

The first step will be to agree on what problem each group will tackle over the ten weeks. “The good thing is there is no end of problems to solve,” Shephard said.

After three weeks, groups will present on the problem they chose, why it has not been effectively solved, and why it is important to solve it.

Over the remaining seven weeks, groups will collaborate to devise their groundbreaking solutions. To inform their projects, students will read books from psychology, management, and political science. Community leaders in education, government, and nonprofits will also present to the class throughout the term on big problems their organizations have faced and how they innovated fixes.

Shephard said that it is classes like this that he wished more people whom he has interviewed for jobs had on their résumés. It’s taken him decades of facing big problems to realize that bold, effective solutions only came with collaboration. 

“I didn’t want to hire the smartest people,” he said of his years as a business leader. “I wanted to hire the people that would make the others smarter.”