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Fish Fry a Reunion of Ag Deans

by Emma Hopkins-OBrien

Published: Friday, February 8, 2019

This year's Purdue Agriculture Fish Fry, which took place last Saturday at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, hosted a "Dean's Reunion," with the current College of Agriculture dean and the four who came before her engaging in a panel discussion on the past, present and future of agriculture as it relates to the university.

The present dean, Karen Plaut, who was formally named dean of agriculture at Purdue just last year, remarked that she was thankful for all the previous deans onstage and what they have done to help the college ahead of her.

"We span 32 years, but the basics and fundamentals of how we think is really similar, and about fostering the land-grant mission," She said.

The land-grant mission did indeed dominate discussion on the panel, with former deans Bob Thompson (who served 1987-1994), Vic Lechtenberg (1994-2004), Randy Woodsen (2004-2008) and Jay Akridge (2008-2017) honing in on topics such as ag research funding, Extension, nurturing public-private partnerships, adopting digital agriculture and others.

"There is great importance in being a land-grant university—it's an idea that is woven through the DNA of the college," Ackridge said. "The notion of taking the next step and charging these institutions with purpose-driven research and purpose-driven science, and asking these institutions to engage the public, to extend what was not on the campus, was brilliant."

Ackridge said the college was already recognized as a world leader by the time he became dean, and he believes it is something that the farmers, businesses and the tax payers of Indiana deserve. During his time as dean, he and his team put in place a strategic plan that focused on people-purpose impact, and he said the intention was emphasizing that Purdue's people were the ones making a difference moving forward.

"It's not the buildings, labs and farms—it's the students, the staff, the alumni—the people that support us around the state, that make this a world-class school, and I didn't want to let that slip as dean," he said.

Part of being a people-first entity, Lechtenburg said, is accomplished through the part of a land grant university system that has its roots in public and corporate Extension of Ag. He believes the future of Ag Extension is extremely bright, despite being different than it was 75 years ago, because it has evolved in accordance with science and entrepreneurship.

"If you stop and think about why Extension was created—it was the idea of taking tech developed out of a research program and into practical use," Lechtenburg said. "Extension was created to be in the short circuit. To take tech and innovation directly from the labs and the classrooms and university, and to the people who put it into practice every day of the week. That need still exists."

Expanding on the point of innovation in agricultural research, Woodsen said a key to funding technologies of the future will be collaborating with corporations.

"I think one of the things we're all going to realize with the changes in our tax structure in the country, is that corporations with the corporate tax burden that they've had for so many years, are going to have the opportunity to invest more in research, and that's going to occur at our universities," Woodsen said. "Our corporate partners are increasingly important. We just have to get a little less restrictive in working with our respective partners, and make it a little easier for them to work with universities like Purdue."

On the other side, Thompson cautioned that shifting too much commitment to private sector investments and research could undermine federal and state commitment to public investment in ag research, which aligns with the land grant mission.

"We've built some fantastic tech as a result of private sector investments, but there are a lot of important research questions today that do not result in a product that can help farmers recoup the cost of investment in the research," Thompson said. "There are too many basic research questions where the answers are too uncertain or far in the future for the private sector to provide optimal investment."

Thompson suggests doing a better job of communicating to congress and state legislatures that there's a high need for public support for ag research.

In closing, Plaut reflected on the legacy handed to her by the former deans. Her hope is that Purdue Agriculture will be known as a model for land-grant institution in the 21st century, and be a hub for innovation, education, research and Extension in the U.S. and around the world.

"I came to a university that has a history of these deans before me, which made me able to step in and continue that legacy, so my goal is to take the legacy of all of you and continue to move it forward."

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