Reduced budget in Ag school raises questions

Max Rust

Recent events in the College of Agriculture have brought into question the direction agricultural research is headed at the University.
The resignation of a prominent sustainable-agriculture proponent and aspects of a $2 million college budget cut have added to the biotechnology debate on campus.
Donald Wyse stepped down April 7 as the director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, a move that raised many eyebrows, including those of state legislators, as to how the college’s power structure is built.
The budget reduction will most likely result in cuts to certain education programs, which has raised alarms within the school and the broader agriculture community.
Charles Muscoplat, the college’s dean, said the cuts are across the board for the entire school. However, MISA, an education center that receives just less than $250,000 a year, is expected to bear a share of the budget cuts while the capital request for $10 million toward a genomics institute to study biotechnology is moving along in the state Capitol.
Muscoplat said the fears of a reduced emphasis on sustainable agriculture are unfounded because MISA will still exist and similar programs will continue within the college.
Muscoplat also said community input into the college’s direction will not be blocked because other community outreach programs will still operate after the cuts.
The two issues — the resignation and budget reduction — have generated an outcry from the many agriculture groups and farmers involved with MISA. These groups and farmers believe Muscoplat is pushing ahead with biotechnology while allowing sustainable-agriculture research and a 10-year buildup of trust between the sustainable community and the University to deteriorate.
A deterioration of trust
MISA was established in 1992 after a group called the Sustainer’s Coalition, comprised of several groups promoting sustainable communities and agriculture, engaged in years of dialogue with the agricultural college about sustainable agriculture.
According to MISA’s Web site, the coalition wanted to “challenge what it viewed as the University’s resistance to sustainable-agriculture research, education and extension initiatives.”
MISA states its purpose is “to bring together the interests of the agricultural community in cooperative effort to develop and promote sustainable agriculture.” The organization works with farmers, academics and organizations that today comprise a much larger Sustainer’s Coalition.
Those who work with MISA are now worried that recent administrative actions by the college are destroying the unique partnership between academia and the farming community.
University officials met Tuesday with members of MISA’s Board of Directors to discuss Wyse’s resignation. He had been its director for eight years.
Many board members — who come from sustainable farms, the agriculture faculty and various agricultural organizations — were surprised April 7 by a message from Muscoplat informing them of Wyse’s resignation.
“This was a real shock,” said Sister Mary Tacheny, the board’s chairwoman. “We were not consulted; we had no inkling of this. We have never received any indication from Don that he didn’t want the job or that he was unhappy with it.”
Wyse could not be reached for comment.
Members of the board and several legislators are convinced Muscoplat somehow forced Wyse to resign from the post, an accusation Muscoplat denies.
“I think that because (Wyse) left soon, people would draw that conclusion,” Muscoplat said.
“What else are we to conclude when Don signed a resignation on the letterhead of the dean’s office?” said Jan O’Donnell, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association and a MISA board member. “This is not a valid resignation.”
Five days later, Tacheny sent a letter to Muscoplat indicating the board would not accept the resignation because, according to its bylaws, “the executive director serves at the pleasure of the Board and will report to and be supervised by the Board of Directors.”
But on April 19, Muscoplat replied that because Wyse is also a professor in the University’s agronomy and plant genetics department, he had the authority to accept the resignation.
According to the University Board of Regents Policy on Academic Personnel Matters, “The Board of Regents delegates to the president, all vice presidents, the general counsel, deans, directors and department heads the authority to accept the resignation on behalf of the University from employees who report to them.”
But eight state legislators indicated in an April 25 letter that they are not convinced Wyse left on his own will, and that the MISA bylaws — approved in October 1993 — have been broken.
“We frankly are worried about a leadership that is willing to run roughshod over a decade-old agreement between the U of M and the sustainable community,” the letter stated.
The legislators’ letter urged Muscoplat to reinstate Wyse as MISA director. Muscoplat said the administration is presently “considering our total response” to the letter.
Some of those who signed the letter, including Rep. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said there has been talk among legislators to further scrutinize the University’s request for the genomics building if Wyse is not reinstated.
However, Kubly said, “I don’t think we have the votes to do that, and I don’t even know if I’d support that.”
Sandra Gardebring, the University’s vice president of institutional relations, said Tuesday’s meeting clarified board members’ concerns and that the University is working with the board to resolve the problem.
“They (the board) certainly have a strong argument that at least the spirit of the partnership was not honored,” she said.
But even if Wyse is reinstated, damage has already been done.
“The violation of trust and the violation of the partnership that’s taken so many years to build cannot be rebuilt. Not in any short term,” O’Donnell said.
Where the Ag school is headed
In addition to Wyse’s resignation, another action by Muscoplat has MISA supporters wondering which direction the college is headed.
In January, Muscoplat wrote a letter to the heads of more than 30 education centers, indicating that the $500,000 provided to many of those centers would be cut by $100,000 in the next year, and possibly more in years to come.
MISA — which is financed by nearly half of those funds — along with the other centers around the state will be reviewed this summer to “assess how the centers are meeting their own stated missions and serving the needs of both the college and target clients,” according to Muscoplat’s letter.
Within the college, some people have interpreted these announced budget cuts along with the University’s $10 million request from the state Legislature to match a $10 million donation from Cargill, as a sign that the University is focusing its energy on biotechnology while decreasing its commitment to community input and sustainable agriculture in the agriculture school.
Muscoplat said the $100,000 is only part of the overall $2 million reduction in budget cuts he needs to finalize by July 1.
But the timing of the resignation, the budget cuts and the genomics building request continues to raise questions.
“My worry as a student is, how is the University showing their allegience? What do they think is important?” said Kristin Mercer, a graduate student in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.