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The Year That’s Been

Posted by: | July 14, 2010 | No Comment |

It has been a year since I moved from Purdue University to Oregon State University.  What a year it’s been!  From a budget perspective, I couldn’t have said it better than Will Rogers, who is quoted as saying: “Last year we said, ‘Things can’t go on like this’, and they didn’t, they got worse.”

I arrived on the scene in July 2009, and was told that we needed to deal with a nearly $10 million shortfall.  We came up with a plan to deal with the same, which resulted in eliminating nearly 60 faculty and staff positions.  Paraphrasing my colleague, Bill Boggess, we slammed the brakes on everything – from filling key positions to eliminating operating funds to putting on hold a number of key initiatives.

The legislature wrapped up its work in the summer of 2009, and voted in tax increases of over $750 million to protect education, health, social services, and other essential parts of the state’s economy.  Soon thereafter a signature campaign was initiated to get a ballot measure on the tax increases.  The measures passed in January 2010, thus, obviating the need for additional cuts to our college.  Lo and behold, the spring 2010 budget forecast was off by more than $570 million, pretty much wiping out the tax increases.  As a consequence, we were informed we needed to eliminate another nearly $3.5 million.  Fortunately, reductions the College planned for the biennium during last fall were sufficient, so that we did not need to go back to the units to cut their budgets yet again.

Just when we thought that we had a plan to deal with the budget shortfall and move on, the University informed us last fall that the footprint of our College needed to be reduced. I empanelled a faculty panel under the stewardship of emeritus dean C. J. “Bud” Weiser, which provided us a thoughtful set of criteria and guidelines to restructure our College.  This was followed up by seeking input from internal and external stakeholders at a series of town hall meetings on and off campus.  Using such input, and based on the guidelines provided by the University, we proposed reducing our footprint from 12 academic departments to eight.  We also proposed name changes for the College and some of the academic units, and proposed greater integration of our research and Extension efforts.  After much deliberation, we decided on staying put with the number of branch experiment stations.  This decision was predicated in part based on the passage of the tax measures and a value proposition that, because of the unique local needs met by each station, and as a shared responsibility, local communities must step up to help achieve the goal of providing one-quarter of the base budget for each station.

We articulated a vision for our College of being nationally preeminent, as a result of undertaking discovery with purpose, delivery of enabling educational programs, and positive impact on people, communities, the economy, and the environment.  Our signature areas of focus included: sustainable food and agricultural systems; bioproducts, biomaterials, and bioenergy; natural resource stewardship; environmental and human wellbeing; and underpinning all of this, the need for outstanding fundamental sciences.

The University also created divisions aligned with its strategic vision, and our College is in the Division of Earth Systems Science, along with the colleges of Forestry and Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.  This has created some interesting opportunities and challenges, which we are working through.

The University has approved much of the restructuring proposal, except for a few items, making necessary only a modest revision of our proposal.  The idea of seeking local support for the branch experiment stations has been met with various responses: from resignation to skepticism to a can-do approach of getting it done.  There are indeed a number of questions and concerns about how this can be brought about. I have stated repeatedly that, if there is agreement that the stations bring local value, then we will need to figure out how best to provide the base support to them so that they indeed thrive and not just limp along.  I have also stated “one size does not fit all”, i.e., each station will likely have a different suite or portfolio of approaches they can develop to meet the goal of obtaining 25 percent of the base support.

There are a number of actions in the restructuring proposal that are “low hanging fruit” and can be accomplished soon.  Others, such as the merger of departments will likely take the rest of this new academic year, while the goal of achieving local support for the stations will likely take two to four years, depending on the location.

With all of the stresses of budgets and restructuring during this past year, I was concerned about the potential impact on our College’s efforts in meeting its fundamental mission of research, Extension, and teaching. I can state unequivocally that our College has been preeminent; our efforts have been purposeful, and have impacted Oregon, our nation, and indeed the world.  Much of this has been brought about as a result of our faculty and staff obtaining extramural grant support:  on the order of nearly $55 million in competitive grants. Our newsletter, The Source, and our magazine, Oregon’s Agricultural Progress, have provided some stories of the amazing efforts of our faculty, staff, and students. I have had the pleasure of seeing our faculty, staff, and students being recognized with awards and kudos.  I have interacted with students and their families.  I have been privileged to participate in the Pendleton Roundup and numerous events around the state.

In retrospect, while Will Rogers’ observation has been true as far as the budget situation goes, this past year has been an affirmation of why I came to Oregon State University:  the unmatchable vision, passion, and efforts of our faculty, staff, and students, and the unwavering support of our stakeholders. This is a great place, and I am so glad to be member of the College of Agricultural Sciences’ family!

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