Hardgrave Reminds Students There’s No Script for Life

Bill Hardgrave at ATU 10-9-2023
Dr. Bill Hardgrave, Arkansas Tech University alumnus and president of the University of Memphis, spoke at ATU's Doc Bryan Student Services Center Lecture Hall on Monday, Oct. 9.

Dr. Bill Hardgrave returned to his alma mater on Monday and told an audience of Arkansas Tech University students, faculty and staff that he is a “statistical anomaly.”

President of the University of Memphis and an internationally recognized expert in radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, Hardgrave grew up in the rural Johnson County community of Hunt. He recalls the nearest paved road being seven miles away.

Hardgrave became a first-generation high school graduate among a class of 23 seniors at Hartman High School, attended Arkansas Tech University and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science in 1987.

He returned to ATU on Monday to offer the fall 2023 ATU School of Business Distinguished Lecture Series address.

“I should not be the president of a university,” said Hardgrave when reflecting upon his youth. “There’s absolutely no way I should be up here today. It started with the experience that I had here at Arkansas Tech. I loved my time here.”

Hardgrave came to Arkansas Tech seeking an opportunity to play college basketball. When that did not pan out, he walked to the ATU library and sought the counsel of a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publication entitled “Occupational Outlook Handbook” to determine his next step.

“I wanted to know what was expected to be the fastest growing occupation in the U.S. over the next several years, and it was computer science,” said Hardgrave. “That’s how I chose my major.”

It was the beginning of a chain of events that allowed Hardgrave to earn academic experiences at Arkansas Tech while simultaneously gaining real-world knowledge by helping establish and develop technology start-up companies.

He wanted to work for IBM, but he needed a master’s degree to maximize his earning potential. That led to an opportunity to teach a class at Missouri State University, which sparked Hardgrave’s interest in pursuing academia as a career.

Next was a stop at Oklahoma State University to earn his Doctor of Philosophy degree in management information systems. That opened doors at the University of Arkansas, where he was a faculty member for 17 years and established and directed the University of Arkansas RFID Research Center (2005-10) and was the Bradberry Chair in Information Systems in the Sam M. Walton College of Business (2001-10).

He told the ATU audience the best career advice he ever received was to “work harder than everybody else.”

Hardgrave went on to serve as dean of the Harbert College of Business (2010-17) and provost and senior vice president for academic affairs (2018-22) at Auburn University before taking office as the 13th president at the University of Memphis on April 1, 2022.

“If I had to title what I want to talk to you about today, it would be that life is a series of unpredictable opportunities,” said Hardgrave. “In each one of those steps I told you about, it was all about opportunities that were completely unpredictable. I can promise you…growing up, sitting around the dinner table…there was no way we talked about Ph.Ds or deans or presidents or anything like that because we didn’t know. There was no guidance there to do that. But every step of the way, there were more and more people who were put in my path that provided me with an opportunity I didn’t know existed. You’ve got to be willing to explore those opportunities when they come your way.”

Hardgrave offered additional advice to ATU students, including using their time in college to create their network, the value of knowing and trusting themselves, overcoming their fear of asking for help and seeking opportunities to travel abroad.

“Life is not scripted,” said Hardgrave. “Life is a series of unpredictable opportunities. Take advantage of those opportunities.”

Photographed (from left-to-right): Tracy Cole, interim dean of the Arkansas Tech University College of Business and Economic Development; Dr. Russell Jones, ATU acting interim president; and Dr. Bill Hardgrave, ATU alumnus and president of the University of Memphis.