Agriculture school adjusts to changing economy

Mary Peterson

In an era when only two percent of the country’s work force makes its living on farms, some Minnesotans ask whether agricultural colleges really serve the public good.
But 16 of the country’s 42 largest agribusiness firms call Minnesota home. One in four jobs in the state has ties to agriculture. The state also boasts one of the fastest growing agricultural areas in the country.
Despite its perennial standing as one of the nation’s top-five ag schools, severe budget cuts at the University in recent years have challenged its agricultural college to question its role for the future.
Of the top five agriculture colleges, four of them also top the nation in funding. Minnesota ranks 11th.
But College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences Dean Mike Martin said, “There’s more to this college than meets the eye.”
When Martin took office two years ago, the college was already moving to change public perception by changing its name. Today, the college continues to look for ways to convince the public that its programs are much broader than expected at a traditional agriculture school. Martin said increasing enrollment and successful student recruiting in urban areas are signs that the message is being heard.
The farm crisis in the mid-1980s led many to believe there was no future in agriculture. The loss of farms and the decline in rural economies displaced traditional farm families, leaving a negative perception of the worth of agricultural training and leaving the college at loss for a solid student base.
Martin said he attributes the recent recovery of enrollment numbers to several factors.
“We’ve been able to define our programs as bigger than typical for colleges of agriculture. Our graduates can find jobs well beyond the traditional range,” he said. Martin cited the opportunities in the turf, landscape horticulture, biotechnology and food science industries as examples.
That attention to curriculum has earned the school top-five ratings by several national publications. “All ten of our departments are in the top ten nationwide. And Food Science and Nutrition and Applied Economics rank number one,” Martin said.
The college has worked hard to reach beyond rural boundaries to extend scholarships to all types of students. Its annual scholarship base exceeds $391,000.
“We have the largest percentage of students of color in the University,” Martin said, “And besides that, we’re damn nice people!”
Another attraction of the college is that its courses are rarely taught by teaching assistants. Many of the tenured faculty are the best in the country, Martin said.
Other colleges in the University system have a high percentage of courses taught by teaching assistants. Martin has restructured budget allowances so that teaching coverage remains a priority. Even so, 26 faculty have been lost to retirement in the past few years.
When asked his opinion on the recent tenure debate, he said, “This college could not function without a mechanism to protect academic freedom. The faculty take on issues related to human health, animal health … things that gouge people’s pocketbooks. They must be protected, and believe they are protected, or they can’t serve the public good.”
But doubts still linger about whether the college can maintain its standards as the economy changes and the attitude persists that the University should be run more like a business.
Industry still expects to hire qualified employees from the ranks of the school’s graduates. Gov. Arne Carlson has said, “Agriculture really is the cornerstone of this state’s economy.”
Yet sources of funding for research and day-to-day operation are becoming more scarce.
Professor Don Wyse, weed scientist in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics illustrated the dilemma. “One day I had three calls from different companies looking for Ph.D.s to fill seven positions. And these were high-paying jobs. All of them wanted people with a background in plant biochemistry and genetics to work on herbicide modes of action. And I couldn’t help them. We no longer have the framework to train people for this,” he said.
Traditionally, much of the funding for University research came from agricultural businesses. Now much of the research has been taken over by in-house corporate research divisions.
As the University has made –and patented — discoveries in biotechnology, private industry has become more dedicated to investing its resources within, rather than continuing its support of academic research.
As a result, fewer opportunities exist for students to get research experience under the tutelage of University faculty.
North Carolina State currently houses such projects in an off-campus complex, where the logos of major companies mark the buildings, hinting at the research underway inside. But some fear that academic freedom is sacrificed in the process.
Martin insists that he will stick to the pursuit of the college’s four interrelated values: excellence, diversity, internationalization and the commitment that “the science we do serves everyone in Minnesota, current and future.”
The challenge, he said, is in persuading the people of Minnesota to reinvest their resources to help the college do this.